While I was sleeping…. I was thinking about the relationship between news coverage and presidential candidate popularity. It is easy to imagine that the popularity of a candidate is directly related to the amount of media coverage that each receives.
But that is not correct. We know, for example, that candidates who have had previous TV coverage (Hillary Clinton, Fred Thompson) are not automatically the front runners compared to those with less previous media coverage like Barak Obama. Oh, but wait! They probably are more popular than they would otherwise be without that coverage.
I think we can assume that media coverage makes candidates more visible than they would otherwise be without this coverage …pretty obvious.
Of course then there is the issue of what kind of coverage is provided. Is this media coverage positive, negative, or neutral?
So there is a difference between simple media exposure and media exposure that directly influences opinion. These two influences can be difficult to separate. In fact, the same media exposure event may produce different opinions in different people.
For the sake of argument let’s think about what an idealistic media outlet should do to provide fair news coverage for presidential candidates. Let’s further assume that the coverage overall will be neutral — and that is, both positive, neutral, and negative aspects of each candidate will be perfectly presented.
So… the only issue under discussion here is: Ideally how should media coverage be allocated to the many candidates?
Everyone’s first impression is that the best approach would be to give all candidates equal media exposure. Is that really the best option? Equal coverage for minority candidates immediately enhances their standing beyond what would otherwise be. This requires us to rethink what we mean by ideal coverage.
What is ideal coverage anyway? Surely, ideal coverage will present candidates as they exist in the real world without altering their popularity. This means that media exposure should not alter the standing of the candidates, it should merely report the news. But we know this is not the case. Media exposure is what candidates need to stay in the race because it will alter the race.
Ideally, factors outside the media, what the candidates actually think, what they say, what they have done in the past, their policies…. these are the things that should determine a candidate’s popularity. Separating media coverage from these things is impossible, because the media coverage is about these things. But ideal media coverage would allow these things, and the candidates, to speak for themselves.
But this still does not answer the question of how much coverage should be given to each candidate. If all candidates are given equal coverage, the very act of providing that coverage to minority candidates makes them appear more important than they would otherwise seem.
Many might agree that this is the ideal role of the media — to level the playing field, not to promote certain candidates. But presenting all candidates equally may defeat this very idea. It does not really level the playing field but rather it promotes candidates who are doing less well in the polls by giving them more coverage.
So what is the fair media outlet to do?