Tracking Election Coverage: August 7-27

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reacts while greeting supporters after giving a speech on the economy at Futuramic Tool & Engineering, in Warren, Mich., on Aug. 11.

For the week of Aug. 21-27, NPR ran 19 stories about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, 10 that focused primarily on his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, and another 17 that dealt more or less equally with both, or other campaign issues not candidate-focused.

For the three-week period from Aug. 7 through Aug. 27, the tally stands at 79 stories primarily focused on Trump, 46 on Clinton, three on other candidates and 55 stories that covered more than one candidate or general campaign issues.

The trend echoes what we found in our two previous tracking columns. Lots about Trump, relatively less on Clinton. (A reminder: These numbers include only newsmagazine reports, not newscasts, Here and Now or shows that NPR distributes, such as The Diane Rehm Show. You can read more about our methodology and why we are doing this here.)

My office has heard from many listeners who are unhappy with this relative lack of focus on Clinton.

Diane Reiser, of Brooklyn, N.Y., with whom I have had an extended back and forth on this topic, wrote on Aug. 25: "I wrote to All Things Considered yesterday about the coverage of Trump voters in central Pennsylvania — no mention of Clinton supporters — no nine-minute piece on those who are voting for her even though polls show her winning Pennsylvania. In fact no positive coverage of Clinton at all that day." She concluded, "All in all it's a sad day for public media when a prime member of its audience for the past 20 years can never hear herself (or her family or friends) reflected in its coverage of this election."

When I pointed her to this previous piece about how Clinton's campaign was targeting millennial voters, Reiser responded: "The Clinton 'story' in Colorado is more about college students not wanting to vote for Donald Trump. It's not at all about voting for the first woman president of the U.S. Or about all the positive reasons to vote for Hillary (those seem to be a secret)." (I would add that the piece did not include any of what are presumably policy reasons that the campaigners are putting forth to vote for Clinton.)

Another letter, this from Helen Harms of Dexter, Mich.: "Over and over again, I keep hearing that people don't trust Hillary Clinton and that they don't know her. So why don't you ever take some time out of your Trump coverage and interview people who DO trust her and DO know her? Seems to me, an avid, daily listener, that you spend an inordinate amount of time covering Trump but do little to present a balanced view of the Clinton campaign."

(As I was finishing up this column, Jeff Jarvis, a blogger and professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, posted his thoughts about not seeing Clinton supporters — he is one — in the media coverage, including NPR's. He wrote: "My community of Hillary Clinton supporters is unheard and unseen."

For most of the summer, I have understood why the newsroom was making the decisions it did; Trump is just a bigger story. His campaign has been cited as the impetus for more outspoken racism in the country; his unorthodox style has included insults and blatant lies; the Republican Party is fearful that his campaign will cause serious damage come November.

As NPR's political team has reported, the Clinton campaign is just fine with the disproportionate number of headlines. Last week she gave only one public speech, and it was an attack on Trump, not a delineation of her own stands. (She also appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live.) NPR did indeed interview a Clinton surrogate last week, Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, and he repeatedly turned the interview into an attack on Trump. As NPR's Ron Elving explained, these are time-tested strategies.

But news organizations do not (or should not) let campaigns set the agenda. Voters will cast their first early votes in just a few weeks. They look to NPR for information to help make those decisions. The listeners say they want to hear more from Clinton supporters. To me, it's the coverage of Clinton's policy proposals that could use a boost.

I don't mean that NPR has done no policy comparisons; it has. On Aug. 9, Morning Edition looked at the Clinton and Trump foreign policy approaches. That week, too, the candidates give dueling speeches about the economy, and Here and Now aired both speeches live, with analysis. (Links here and here.) All Things Considered and Weekend Edition Saturday had meaty policy-focused follow-up pieces.

But this past week, the imbalance in NPR's coverage crept back in, and we found just three NPR stories that included snippets about Clinton's policy stands, including here and here.

The other story, on Aug. 23, was on immigration, a topic that flared up last week when Trump signaled that his stance on immigration issues was changing. (He is expected to address his proposed policies more in a speech tonight.) Appropriately, NPR covered that shift; the issue has been at the core of his campaign message and even the slightest nuance in messaging is legitimate news, in my mind. Seven stories in last week's tracking period looked at Trump and immigration.

What is Clinton's approach to the issue? That online-only Aug. 23 story about Trump contained this line: "Focusing efforts on immigrants in the country illegally who have committed violent crimes, rather than an en-masse deportation effort, would be a policy much more in line with what Hillary Clinton is proposing than what Trump had previously touted."

Otherwise, one has to go back to Aug. 10 to find NPR reporting on how Clinton would approach the issue (in this good piece by Tamara Keith). In the last three weeks, that makes 10 stories talking about Trump and immigration in our tracking period (including the one with a small nod to Clinton), zero solely about Clinton's stance and one (Keith's piece) that looked at both candidates' positions. When critics talk about all the free media that Trump is getting, that's part of what they mean.

Looking Ahead

NPR's newsroom is proud — justifiably so, in my opinion — of an initiative called A Nation Engaged, which NPR's head of news, Michael Oreskes, described to me as "a push by NPR and member stations to break away from the campaign narrative." This week, using reports on NPR's newsmagazines and local member station talk shows and reporting, the conversation is focused on "What is America's place in the world?" Two more weeks (in September and October) of concentrated reporting are coming up, which will look at various proposals to create economic opportunity for more Americans and what it means to be an American now, respectively.

Not all of the A Nation Engaged work will be reflected in upcoming tracking reports from my office, but it is worth seeking out. Indeed, some of the newsmagazine reports that are part of the conversation this week have looked in depth at the candidates' — both candidates' — policy stances.

My takeaway is, more like this, please.

(Update: The day after this column posted, a Morning Edition piece noted some of the difference between Clinton's and Trump's respective immigration plans.)

Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this report.

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The headline of this post mistakenly said July, not August.