Seven years ago, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, media analysts scrambled to explain Donald Trump’s victory. According to this theory, disinformation is to blame, fueled by Russian agents and relayed on social networks. But as researchers, we wondered whether the fascination and fear over “fake news” had led people to underestimate the influence of traditional media. After all, mainstream media remains an important part of the media ecosystem: it is widely read and watched; they help set the agenda, including on social media. We decided to examine what was on the first printed page of the New York Times in the three months preceding election day. Out of one hundred and fifty articles covering the campaign, only a handful mentioned politics; the vast majority covered horse racing politics or personal scandals. The most striking thing is that Times published ten front-page articles on Hillary Clinton’s email server. “If voters had wanted to find out about the issues,” we concluded“they would not have learned much from reading the Times.”
We have not suggested that the election coverage in the Times was no worse than what appeared in other mainstream media outlets, “especially as it was typical of a broader failure of mainstream journalism.” But we expected, or at least hoped, that in the years that followed, Times would carry out a critical review of its editorial policy. Was the overwhelming focus on the election as a sporting competition the best way to serve readers? Was the obsessive focus on Clinton’s email server really justified in light of Trump’s countless personal, ethical, and ultimately criminal failures? It seemed that editors had a responsibility to rethink both the amount of attention given to certain topics as well as their framing.
After the 2022 midterms, we returned, this time examining the first printed page of the Times and the Washington Post from September 1, 2022 until Election Day in November. As before, we estimated that the front page mattered disproportionately, in part because the articles placed there represented selections that editors considered most important to readers – and also because, according to Nielsen data that We analyzed, 32% of web browsing sessions during this period were starting. At Times the home page did not lead to other sections or articles; people often stick to what they are shown first. We added the Job this time for comparison, to get an idea of whether the Times was really abnormal.
This was not the case. We found that the Times and the Job shared significant overlap in their coverage of domestic politics, offering little insight into politics. Both emphasized horse races and country palace intrigues, stories that were intended more to entertain readers than to inform them about the essential differences between the political parties. The main point of contrast we found between the two articles is that although the Job delved more into topics Democrats typically want to discuss — affirmative action, police reform, LGBTQ rights — the Times tended to focus on issues important to Republicans: China, immigration and crime.
In figures, out of four hundred and eight articles on the front page of the Times During the period we analyzed, about half (two hundred and nineteen) concerned domestic politics. A generous interpretation revealed that only ten of these articles explained national public policy in detail; only one front-page article in the run-up to the midterm elections actually focused on a discussion of a political issue in Congress: Republican efforts to cut Social Security. Of three hundred and ninety-three articles on the front page of the Job, two hundred and fifteen concerned domestic politics; our searches found only four articles discussing any form of politics. THE Job In the months leading up to the midterm elections, there were no headline stories about the policies the candidates wanted to emphasize or the legislation they planned to implement. Instead, the articles speculated on the candidates and discussed the trend of voting bases. (All data and analysis supporting this article can be found here.)
Exit polls indicated that Democrats were most concerned about abortion and gun policy; crime, inflation, and immigration were Republicans’ top concerns. In the TimesRepublican-favored topics accounted for thirty-seven articles, while Democratic topics accounted for only seven. In the Job, Republican subjects were at the center of twenty articles and Democratic subjects represented fifteen, a much more balanced distribution. In the last days before the elections, we noticed that Times, in particular, has drummed up fears about the economy—voter concerns, corporate exploitation, and concerns about the Federal Reserve—as well as crime. Data buried in articles sometimes disproved an article’s fear-based premise. Yet by discussing how concerned people were about inflation and crime – and reporting in these articles that Republicans were benefiting from a sense of alarm – the Times suggested that inflation and crime were historically bad (they weren’t) and that Republicans had solutions to offer (they weren’t).
Take a step back, if the Times and other major media outlets faced critical self-reflection after the 2016 election, this does not appear to have affected their coverage. The leaders of the Times publicly acknowledge any failure. Quite the contrary, in early 2022, then-departing editor Dean Baquet said in an interview that he did not regret the articles emailed to Clinton. In the same interview, Baquet acknowledged criticism of his newspaper’s political coverage, but pushed back aggressively: “My job is to try to convince my editorial staff that it shouldn’t be too influenced by Twitter criticism.” “, did he declare. “If Twitter doesn’t like it, Twitter can throw itself into the lake.” Baquet – and his successors, as well as his peers in other major media outlets – seem to view themselves as exercising objective (or pure and independent) judgment. Indeed, AG Sulzbergerpresident of the New York Times Company and publisher of Timesmade exactly this argument in an article for CJR this spring: “I continue to believe that objectivity – or if the word is just too distracting, open-mindedness – remains a value worth striving for.” , he wrote, adding that “independence, the word we use inside the Timesbetter reflects the full extent of this journalistic approach and its promises to the general public.
Regardless of what journalists and owners of major newspapers proclaim, judgments about news are inherently subjective. Any claim to objectivity is a convenient fiction. On any given day, many accurate and arguably newsworthy stories could appear on the front page. (During our study period, the overlap in the selection of front-page articles at Times and the Job was only about a third.) The topics the editors choose to emphasize are neither accurate nor inaccurate; they simply reflect subjective opinions. Likewise, the way an article is written also involves a series of choices: what facts are highlighted, what voices are included, what perspectives are considered. Words like “objectivity” and “independence” – even “truth” – make for fine rhetoric, but are so easily twisted to fit everyone’s agenda that they are meaningless. After all, Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson—who, unlike Times and the Jobdoes not operate in the realm of reality – but also claims truthfulness and independence.
What appears in a newspaper is less a reflection of what is happening in the world than what a media outlet chooses to report about what is happening – an indicator of values. Last year, for example, the Times They decided to extensively cover the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which is understandable, of course – but also largely ignored the political implications of the midterm elections on the war, with Republicans threatening to block military aid . Abortion rights were clearly crucial to the midterm elections (with potential impact on laws and judges), while crime rates were essentially irrelevant (with no discernible policy in place). game). Times chose to publish twice as many articles on crime (a subject generally favored by Republicans) as on abortion (a key subject for Democrats). The newspaper also chose to emphasize inflation, rather than job or wage growth, in its economic coverage – another choice that suited Republicans. THE Times has provided admirably extensive coverage of potential threats to democracy, but in general, midterm media coverage has not addressed much about the dangers posed to the integrity of the election.
The choices made by major publishers are not bad in themselves, for the same reason that an editorial team cannot objectively know how to cover a subject, nor to what extent to cover it: no one can. Yet editorial choices are undeniably choices – and they will weigh heavily on the next presidential race. The media can and must maintain a commitment to truth and accuracy. But without a serious and transparent assessment of what they choose to emphasize – and what they choose to ignore – their readers will remain misinformed.
David M. Rothschild, Elliot Pickens, Gideon Heltzer, Jenny Wang and Duncan J. Watts are the authors of this article. David Rothschild is the Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research. Elliot Pickens is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gideon Heltzer is at the Latin School. Jenny Wang is a predoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research. Duncan Watts is a professor at Stevens University and a Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) professor at the University of Pennsylvania.