A Northeastern study takes the measure of our controversy-driven political coverage

Illustration by Emily Judem for WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For observers of the media, there are few spectacles more dispiriting than the way the press covers presidential campaigns. Rather than digging into what really matters, such as the candidates’ experience, leadership ability and positions on important issues, reporters focus on controversies, attacks on one another, gotcha moments and, of course, polls, polls and more polls.

Now a study conducted by the School of Journalism at Northeastern University has quantified just how bad things are. Looking at about 10,000 news articles from 28 ideologically diverse news outlets published between March and October, my colleagues and I found that coverage of the Democratic candidates “tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items.”

Our findings were posted last week at Storybench, a vertical published by the School of Journalism that covers media innovation. The data analysis was performed by Aleszu Bajak with an assist from John Wihbey. Among the key points in our report:

• The televised debates have driven some of the issues-based coverage. For instance, mentions of the candidates’ positions on immigration and health care increased during and immediately after the debates but then quickly subsided.

• Kirsten Gillibrand made reproductive choice one of her signature issues — and after she dropped out of the race, that issue faded from media coverage. Similarly, coverage of gun control was tied mainly to Beto O’Rourke’s now-defunct campaign. LGBTQ rights and climate change have been virtually ignored.

• The Ukraine story has dominated recently coverage of the Democratic candidates, with much of it focused on President Trump’s false accusations that Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden acted corruptly.

Of course, to some extent the media can’t help but be reactive. It would be irresponsible not to cover what the candidates are saying about themselves and each other. But the press’ urge to chase controversies at the expense of more substantive matters shows that little has been learned since its disastrous performance four years ago.

As Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy wrote in an analysis of the 2016 campaign, coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was unrelentingly negative, creating the impression that the controversy over Clinton’s emails was somehow equivalent to massive corruption at Trump’s charitable foundation, his racist remarks and his boasting about sexual assault as revealed on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.

“The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal,” Patterson wrote. “Its bias is a decided preference for the negative.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Earlier this year, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen proposed campaign coverage built around a “citizens agenda.” Rosen proposed that news organizations should identify their audience, listen to what they believe the candidates should be focusing on, and cover the race accordingly.

“Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda,” Rosen wrote on his influential blog, Press Think. “And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm.”

Some coverage of presidential politics has been quite good. Quality news organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have published in-depth articles on challenges the candidates have overcome and how that helps shape their approach to governing. The Boston Globe has been running a series called “Back to the Battleground” in which it has reported on four key states that unexpectedly went with Trump in 2016. Reports aimed at making sense of the Ukraine story, explaining Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan and the like are worthy examples of campaign journalism aimed at informing the public. But such efforts tend to be overshadowed by day-to-day horse-race coverage.

The latest poll-driven narrative is the rise of Pete Buttigieg, who’s emerged as the clear frontrunner in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey. You can be sure that he’ll be watched closely at this week’s televised debate. Will his rivals attack him? Will he fight back? Can he take the heat?

Little of it will have much to do with what kind of president Buttigieg or any of the other candidates would be. The horse race is paramount. Who’s up, who’s down and the latest controversies are what matter to the political press.

The data my Northeastern colleagues have compiled provides a measurement of how badly political coverage has run off the rails. What’s needed is a commitment on the part of the media to do a better job of serving the public interest.

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