As different as the 2016 election cycle was from the norm, in many ways the actions and attitudes of the national political press were entirely as usual. This was especially true when it came to how reporters saw their influence on the public when they were critiqued over their coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. A typical response to the idea that mainstream news coverage had helped deliver the election to Trump, either by helping him or hurting Clinton, argued that the press had provided honest coverage of Trump’s negatives, and that the negative things they reported about Clinton were true. In other words, coverage didn’t influence voters’ decisions; reality did. If the press had influenced public opinion, per se, it would’ve meant that the press had been unfair in its reporting in terms of accuracy or completeness.
That working journalists so routinely fail to understand elementary media effects is a failure of curiosity and reflection for them, and a failure of communication and engagement for those of us in journalism scholarship. In this case, there are at least three major and fairly basic types of effects that almost certainly occurred, but that most journalists are unable or unwilling to see. All of them stem from the fact that reporting a piece of information accurately is neither the beginning nor the end of representing truth through the news.
Some argue that agenda setting is the only real news effect that we’ve ever discovered, and everything else is just a variant on it. I disagree with that, but its various “levels” are all over the kinds of effects we can see in this campaign. The basic idea behind agenda setting is that the news doesn’t tell people what to think, but does tell people what to think about. That is, based on what the press chooses to cover, and the extent of coverage it devotes to a range of stories, the public develops a set of beliefs about how different stories compare in terms of importance, and obviously stories that don’t get covered are stories the public never learns about.
That key relationship with knowledge tells us a lot about how Gallup’s word cloud came to be. Clinton’s email server (and most likely the unrelated email hacking stories contributed to this) dominated the press agenda, as confirmed by every study of campaign coverage. Negative Trump topics, such as the seemingly criminal Trump Foundation, were covered, but much less so. In the development of the press agenda, they were only minor pieces, sometimes pursued by only one outlet or even one reporter.
Perhaps more importantly, by running his rallies live so frequently, TV news allowed Trump to directly set their agenda. Print and digital outlets joined in by picking up elements from those rallies, as well as by obsessively covering his Twitter feed, which they continue to do now. As many have noted, Trump has essentially become a media outlet himself, and as such, theory related to intermedia agenda-setting is highly relevant. Needless to say, Clinton’s events and campaign communications were not granted the same access to the press agenda, which may be why so many people now wonder why she “never talked about economics.”
Mere prominence of one story over another was not the other thing going on. How those stories are presented contextually, even if the facts are 100% true, also has an impact on what people take away from them. In 2016, it’s clear a scandal frame was used to present many stories about Hillary Clinton; you can see this is the way the New York Times and others so often reported on “clouds” being raised or “shadows” being cast around her. For Clinton, the scandal frame was always operative, and it interacted with the game frame to produce stories that were often first about how things looked, and second about how the way they looked might affect the campaign.
We can hypothesize that these frames were picked up by the public by looking at candidate honesty judgments, which mostly found the public thinking Trump was the more honest candidate, despite direct assessment showing Clinton to be one of the most honest politicians, and Trump the very least. On top of that, Clinton was transparent about her and her foundation’s finances, while Trump refused to release anything he wasn’t legally required to. Given that, why would the public have things so backwards? Framing provides the simplest answer. It also provides the foundation which the single most important priming effect of all time was built.
I can’t be sure what various scholars might have planned to study the effects described above, but I’d be astonished if there weren’t a dozen or more public opinion scholars ready to pounce on the effect of priming in late vote decisions. Back in 1990, Jon Krosnick and Donald Kinder published a seminal article on the role of priming in assessing the president. This article used data from the 1986 National Election Study, a panel survey that included interviews of the same people before and after the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair. What they found was evidence of the extent to which evaluations of Ronald Reagan shifted in the direction of evaluations of him specifically on foreign policy grounds when the new scandal emerged and primed people to think of it when they thought of him.
James Comey’s October 28 letter to Congress serves the same role in the 2016 election as the Iran-Contra news did for the 1986 NES data. An analysis of panel data recently conducted for 538 structurally confirms this, as pre-letter and post-letter data gathered from the same respondents show a 4% swing to Trump as the dormant email story was made newly salient for late-deciding or flippable voters. Without additional data we can’t say for sure this was due to Comey’s letter, but there is no other plausible competing theory.
Some members of the press might point out that this is not really a media effect — Comey is a newsworthy individual who did a newsworthy thing in the context of the election, and they simply reported it. But this is where all three of these effects come together. The national political press responded to this event with zone-flooding coverage; the New York Times alone ran seven front page stories on it in the first three days of coverage, making it highly salient, telling the public it was an especially important story, and presenting it in the scandal frame. These choices were not made with any Trump stories, such as the illegal donation his foundation made to the attorney general of Florida before she dropped her investigation of Trump University, or indeed, the $25 million settlement of the broader Trump University case.
None of this is “fake news.” And yet, we have a journalism that is working at odds with what we think journalism ought to be for. Matthew Yglesias has this right when he says that the overriding issue of what looks to be the most consequential election since 1932 was email server management. That’s not something that just happens. But really, none of the things that happen in public opinion just happen. The press and the decisions that journalists make everyday — and they do make decisions everyday and in every story — affect what people know, think, and believe. Their desire to stand apart and abdicate responsibility for outcomes doesn’t change that.