Do you think that the news media favor sensation over substance? The evidence shows the opposite. So why does it seem that way? Because sensation is what we, as readers, want, and social algorithms give us what we ask for.
The two most newsworthy things that Donald Trump did in the last two days were these:
- He gave a major economic policy speech in Detroit which he laid out his tax policy, for example.
- He suggested in North Carolina that “Second Amendment people” could somehow take care of the gun-control favoring judges Hillary Clinton would appoint — words that are easy to interpret as an incitement to violence.
If you judge by the echo chamber of your own Facebook feed, the ambiguous but shocking assassination suggestion is ubiquitous, and the economic policy speech is barely present. Is this the media’s fault?
I set out to test this hypothesis. Here are some facts comparing the two:
- Google News finds 9,090 items about Trump citing “Second Amendment People” or “2nd Amendment People”, but 22,200 citing “Economic Speech” and (tax) “brackets.”
- The country’s biggest newspapers had more coverage on the economic speech than on the veiled threat. The Wall Street Journal had 5 articles about the threat but 12 about Trump’s economic speech (including editorials). The Washington Post‘s writers and editorialists had 9 articles on each. The New York Times had 3 on the Second Amendment comment and 7 on the economic policy speech. (I exclude wire service stories, which bulk up the search results but don’t feature prominently on these papers’ web sites.)
The “Second Amendment People” comment is like catnip to Trump’s opponents — it drives them crazy. They share it, Facebook picks up on that, and as a result our feeds are full of it. But how many of us are discussing the impact of Trump’s plan on the deficit, or his child-care credit that won’t help the people who need it most? Not a whole lot.
Hillary Clinton’s strength is that she speaks in complete sentences, understands policy and Washington, and is careful with words. Donald Trump’s is that he may at any moment say anything, which his supporters see as “not being a politician” and “shaking up the system.” As much as you may want to believe it, it’s not the serious media who are rewarding Trump for being like this — they are simply reporting what’s happening. It’s our own salacious and emotional natures, inflamed and reinforced by viral algorithms of social media.
What will be tested in the next three months is the question of whether all publicity is good publicity. Trump’s increasingly outrageous statements titillate both his backers and his opponents. Clinton’s more substantive soundtrack excites far less. By the time we get to November, though, the whole country will have a pretty good idea of the character of these candidates, not just their positions. I still think a majority of voters won’t reward Trump’s stream of “can you top this” commentary. But we’re about to find out.