Over twenty years ago, Thomas Patterson argued that “the strategic game is embedded in virtually every aspect of election news, dominating and driving it” (1994, p. 69). This bias towards the “horse race” is alive and well in today’s media coverage of the 2016 presidential election and particularly of the Republican nominees. This week, the New York Times made the game frame explicit, devoting a full article to Donald J. Trump’s electoral chances as evidenced by interviews and polling.
Accusations of media bias, however, should not be made on the basis of a single article. In order to see whether any news source is covering an issue through a particular lens, it is necessary to examine a larger, random sample of coverage of that issue. In this case, the question is “to what extent does the game frame dominate early coverage of the 2016 presidential election?” To empirically examine this question, we could conduct a content analysis of a random sample of election coverage and attempt to identify the major frames used to discuss the topic. In the Times article mentioned above, one frame is the horse race–who’s in front, who’s falling behind–but another could be the importance of candidate personality or the data-driven campaigning. Once the frames have been identified for all of the articles in the sample, we can determine what percentage of articles use the game frame and use that to draw conclusions about its prevalence across all election coverage (or a subset that we are interested in).
In Out of Order, Patterson also points out that the tone of media coverage for candidates follows predictable patterns. He describes the “bandwagon,” “losing-ground,” “likely loser” and “front-runner” candidates and how the favorability of their coverage changes as the election progresses. I could claim that Trump is a bandwagon candidate–his support in the polls has increased–and therefore his coverage should be improving with his polling numbers. This Times article, for example, seems to suggest taht is exactly what is happening, explaining that people are attracted to him as a candidate because he is “ballsy” and “tells it like it is.” Like with the first question, this claim can be tested empirically (in a year or so) by examining the tone of coverage of Trump’s candidacy and determining what proportion of it is positive over the course of the campaign. If Trump’s coverage steadily becomes more positive, he likely fits Patterson’s description of a bandwagon candidate!
What do you think? How does the focus on the horserace help us make a decision about who to vote for? Do you think Trump will continue to see favorable coverage?