Across the internet on May 19, headlines blared some version of “Harvard study shows overwhelming anti-Trump media bias” (infowars.com). The story then ricocheted around social media and Letters to the Editor, including one in the Sun Journal on June 1.

The problem is, that is not what the study showed — it’s not even close.

It is not difficult to go to the source when we see an incendiary headline. I pasted the header of the Sun Journal letter into Google, and the source material was only 2 clicks away (https://shorensteincenter.org/news-coverage-donald-trumps-first-100-days/).

The study, by Thomas E. Patterson at the Harvard Kennedy School, used trained specialist “coders” to rate the “tone” of any mainstream media coverage of more than five lines of print or five seconds of TV, as either positive or negative.

The study found that Trump’s coverage (about three times higher than that of previous presidents), has featured 80 percent Republican voices in quotes and sound bites. Yet the tone has been resoundingly negative (80 percent, as compared to 60 percent for runner-up Bill Clinton). As triumphantly reported by many online media outlets, Fox did indeed have the lowest negativity (at 52 percent) of any specific U.S. news outlet, but even Fox ran 81 percent negative on immigration policy and 78 percent negative on health care.

However, media have converged to give Trump credit for certain actions. In coverage of the cruise missile attack on Syria, for instance, Fox ran 79 percent positive and all other outlets combined ran 80 percent positive.

The study did not evaluate “media bias” or “slant,” as claimed in most headlines. These words are themselves interpretive and were avoided by the study’s author, who took pains to collect unbiased data (facts) so that actual trends could be documented. To illustrate why this is important, consider that what we hear about mosquitoes, rattlesnakes and rabid dogs is overwhelmingly negative. One interpretation of this fact might be that media are “biased” against those organisms, but other interpretations are clearly more likely here, and perhaps in Trump’s case as well.

Several interpretations of Trump’s negative coverage are discussed in the study — yet none of those were reported by internet commentators who latched onto it as proof of media bias.

First, the study points out a strong trend towards increasingly negative coverage of news in general, a trend that predates Trump’s presidency by decades and surely explains some (but not all) of the negativity found. Next, it notes that most individuals or groups complaining about negative coverage claim they have not been allowed to speak for themselves. For instance, coverage of Muslims in the U.S. has been documented at 75 percent negative, and Muslim voices were heard in only 5 percent of that coverage. This explanation doesn’t apply in Trump’s case, however, since Trump himself has provided the sound bites for an astounding two-thirds of his coverage.

Finally, the study notes that “The early days of (Trump’s) presidency have been marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory.” Short version: negative coverage is no surprise — he has done a lot of negative things.

The study doesn’t let the press off the hook, though. It concludes that journalists should “spend less time peering at the White House” and more time following up on effects of policy initiatives, airing more voices from more places, not just the president’s. Especially, it notes, journalists should not see themselves as the opponents of government, but should focus on the opposition between the parties, which lies at the heart of democracy. “When spokespersons for the opposing party get a mere six percent of the airtime, something’s amiss.”

That is what the study really said. Like any thoughtful piece of research, it isn’t readily reduced to a sensational headline blaming one group.

The take-home message? We should do a little homework before we latch onto a story that seems to tell us what we want to hear. Check out the source material, think about the implications, discuss it with friends and neighbors (listening at least as much as we talk.) If we step out of the echo chamber, we might just learn something interesting.

Seri Lowell is a dairy farmer and retired Bates College writing specialist in the sciences. She lives in Buckfield.


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