Trump’s Media Saturation, Quantified

In the mobile internet age, there has been an astonishing leap in how much is written about leading presidential candidates—not just Trump.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Donald Trump is everywhere. It sometimes seems, and has seemed this way for several months, that the Republican nominee is all anyone can talk about.

Whether this is because the media is doing its duty or because news organizations are capitalizing on Trump’s bombast for ratings and traffic is a matter of debate. But one thing is clear: Trump is getting outsized attention compared with his opponents.

The Atlantic’s daily media tracker, which tallies television mentions of the candidates, shows Trump dominating. As of March, journalism’s obsession with Trump had totaled the equivalent of about $2 billion in free media, according to an analysis by mediaQuant, a company that uses advertising rates to assign a dollar amount to the amount of media coverage a candidate gets. Hillary Clinton had garnered about $746 million in free media at the time, The New York Times reported, while Bernie Sanders free media totaled about $321 million. (“Free media” doesn’t necessarily help a candidate, though. Though Trump seems to embrace the “no publicity is bad publicity” mantra, his favorability ratings among voters are miserable.)

In the course of reporting another story, I’ve come across another staggering way to quantify and compare coverage of the candidates.

Drawing from more than 50 newspapers in Nexis’s archives, I’ve been pulling all the coverage related to Trump, Clinton, and Sanders over a 13-month period from July 2015 to August 2016. (I also pulled 13 months of coverage from Bill Clinton’s run for president in 1991 and 1992.)

What I found is one of the clearest illustrations of how the pace of journalism has changed in the past 25 years: Even as newsrooms are smaller than ever, they’re producing far more journalism—at least in the realm of presidential campaign coverage. And that’s largely because of how technology has upended the journalism industry as it once operated. In the mobile internet age, the appetite for round-the-clock, real-time news is insatiable. Between 1994 and 2014, the industry cut over 20,000 jobs, representing a 39 percent decline, according to a Pew report earlier this year. And yet, among the newspapers I looked at, there were more than double the amount of articles written about Hillary Clinton over a 13-month period in 2015 and 2016 than there were written about her husband over the same time period when he ran for president in 1992.  (The coverage from this year includes online-only stories produced by newspapers, whereas the coverage from 1992 only comes from print stories.)

Before we go any further, there are plenty of caveats to assessing coverage this way. For one, just looking at quantity tells us nothing about quality; so there’s really no fair way to discern from numbers alone whether this trend is a good thing, journalistically. (Many journalists lament the pace of the news today, and understandably so, but as a news consumer I would never want to return to an era where you had to wait for the nightly news or the morning paper to find out what had happened in the past several hours.)

Besides that, there are other factors—like coverage of the Benghazi hearings last October—that help explain why so much more was written about Hillary than Bill. There’s also the simple matter of space: On the internet, where writers aren’t restricted by inches, there's more room to expand with follow-up articles, and incremental updates. And, finally, there’s certainly some overlap among the articles I pulled—even though Nexis does some automatic correcting for duplicates—because many articles are about more than one candidate.

All we know, from this mini-analysis, is that reporters from the same set of newspapers—or, their consolidated successors, as is the case among some metro dailies—published 7,945 articles about Bill Clinton during his 1992 run; 18,640 articles about Hillary Clinton over a 13-month period in 2015 and 2016; 7,841 articles about Bernie Sanders over that same period; and a whopping 29,019 stories about Trump.

In the coming weeks, I’ll have deeper analysis about what that coverage actually reveals.