Trump, Media, and the ‘oxygen of publicity’


Prof Sarah Oates 

Professor and Senior Scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park, USA. She is a former journalist who has studied elections and news in the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom.


US2016 - Section 1

Section 1: Media

Media scholars have paid a lot of attention to social media in recent elections. Yet, there is a compelling argument to think about the whole political communication sphere – from how the candidates frame their messages to how the traditional mass media covers them to how people comment and share on social media. In particular, our research suggests that the traditional mass media gave the ‘oxygen of publicity’ – to borrow the phrase Margaret Thatcher used to talk about British terrorism coverage– to the early Trump campaign. Although the coverage was often critical of the candidate, particularly for his statements about immigration, it arguably had the effect of consolidating the Trump political brand at a critical juncture. 

In a joint project between the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, Prof. Wendy W. Moe and I analyzed both traditional newspaper coverage and tweets relating to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the early primary period (July 1 to September 24, 2015). The purpose was to establish how effective the candidates were at communicating their brands into both traditional and social media, as well as to examine how much people on Twitter were relating to either campaign messages or the news coverage. We focused on news stories and tweets that mentioned either of the candidates and words linked to four important primary campaign issues (the economy, healthcare, the Iranian nuclear deal, and immigration) as well as personal issues or traits linked to the candidates (such as “Bill Clinton”, “corrupt” or “liar”).

We found that the US political communication landscape was overwhelmed by amplification of Trump’s statements about immigration (this was soon after his speech that called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and while he was promising to “build a wall”). Clinton tweeted more about the economy and healthcare and Trump tweeted more about immigration. This pattern was reflected in public tweets, in which tweets about the economy and healthcare were linked to Clinton and those about immigration were linked to Trump. While they were by no means always positive, the sheer volume of immigration/Trump tweets was the single largest election issue we measured circulating on Twitter from July to September 2015. 

In 475 newspaper articles linked to the issue or personality keywords, immigration was mentioned in 264 articles (56 percent), while all other issues combined were mentioned in 232 articles (some mentioned more than one issue). And if you look at Chart 1, you’ll see that in this most popular category of immigration, there was a huge focus on Trump. This crowded out discussion of other issues or even our personality keywords.

Journalists would be quick to point out that this coverage of Trump was generally aimed at highlighting how people found his statements outrageous or upsetting. In this sense, they were fulfilling the role of journalists as those who patrol the boundaries of culture, signaling that public officials should not make false or denigrating comments about social groups. But while this might have been the message intended, the message received by much of America was that Trump was a political force. This amplified his brand in a crowded primary in a far more powerful way than a carefully constructed policy message or paid advertising. While we have yet to carry out the analysis for the general election, observing the news coverage emphasis on scandals and threats – such as Trump’s caginess about accepting the results – suggests that Trump continued to direct the narrative. 

Thatcher famously claimed that denying those the British government deemed terrorist groups the ‘oxygen of publicity’ would help end terrorism in Northern Ireland. That didn’t work out, not least because the roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland are broad, deep, and not dependent on frames by the British media. However, in the case of Trump, the mainstream media’s constant barrage of coverage from the primaries onward – arguably designed as a warning but interpreted as a sign of influence – may have given critical oxygen to Trump’s campaign. 

Chart 1: Candidates linked with issues or personality keywords in newspaper articles, 1 July to 24 September 2015


Source: Author’s research. Coding of 475 articles from The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and USA Today. Articles were retrieved by using keywords for the issues and personality factors. 

Chart 2: Tweets that mention either Trump or Clinton and contain a key word

clinton_tweets_png trump_tweets_png

Source: Author’s research. Our project collected a total of 955,193 tweets that named Trump and 272,579 tweets that named Clinton. The chart above shows only those tweets that also mentioned one of our keywords. The tweets were automatically categorized by keywords.