Thomas Patterson, Harvard University - The analysis indicates that substantive policy issues have received only a small amount of attention so far in the 2016 election coverage. To be sure, “the wall” has been in and out of the news since Donald Trump vowed to build it. Other issues like ISIS and free trade have popped up here or there as well. But in the overall context of election coverage, issues have played second fiddle. They were at the forefront in the halls of the national conventions but not in the forefront of convention-period news coverage. Not a single policy proposal accounted for even 1 percent of Hillary Clinton’s convention-period coverage and, collectively, her policy stands accounted for a mere 4 percent of it.
Trump’s policies got more attention, but not until after the Democratic convention, when he made headlines several days running for his testy exchange with the parents of a slain Muslim U.S. soldier.
That exchange sparked a “controversy,” which is sure to catch reporters’ attention. We’ve seen that time and again this election year. Past elections were not much different, featuring everything from Jimmy Carter’s “lust in my heart” Playboy interview in 1976 to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” statement in 2012. None of these controversies was predictive of anything that happened in the presidency during the subsequent four years, but their coverage during the campaign overshadowed nearly every policy proposal put forth by the candidates.
“Medialities” is the label political scientist Michael Robinson has given to such controversies. Journalists find them irresistible, as political scientist W. Lance Bennett noted when looking at Trump’s birther claims. When Trump in 2011 questioned whether President Obama was a native-born American, his statement was seized upon by cable outlets and stayed in the headlines and on newscasts for days.
The leading “mediality” of the 2016 campaign has been Clinton’s emails. That and other news references to Clinton-related “scandals” accounted for 11 percent of her convention-period coverage, following the pattern of earlier stages of the campaign. What Clinton might do in the Middle East or with trade or with the challenge of income equality could reasonably be anyone’s guess, given how little attention her policy statements have received in the news.
At that, controversies rank second to the horse race as a staple of journalists’ diet. No aspect of the campaign meets journalists’ need for novelty more predictably than does the horse race. Each new poll or disruption gives journalists the opportunity to reassess the candidates’ tactics and positions in the race.
Policy issues, on the other hand, lack novelty. A new development may thrust a new issue into the campaign, but policy problems are typically longstanding. If they came and went overnight, they would not be problems. It is for this reason that when a candidate first announces a policy stand, it makes news. Later on, it normally doesn’t.