Fact-check: is the media really to blame for Donald Trump?


Addressing the usual throng of press reporters earlier this month, Ted Cruz said, “The mainstream media loves talking about Donald Trump” – a statement that was instantly relayed by the media, complete with a loud reference to Trump in the headline. The irony doesn’t end there. In the past few weeks, countless articles have wondered aloud whether too many articles are being written about Donald Trump.

Is the media to blame for Donald Trump? The risks of navel-gazing and delusions of grandeur are high when the media itself takes on that question. Nonetheless, this data journalist’s analysis suggests there are several strong reasons to take on the question, and several strong reasons to raise doubt about the conclusion.

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Photograph: Washington Post

The stakes in the question are high (if the media truly is to blame then perhaps we could also shape who becomes the next US president). And a majority of Americans agree that the media is indeed very powerful. Earlier this month 68% of Americans told YouGov that they believed the mainstream media bore at least some responsibility for violence at Trump events.

Although the question is important, it’s still problematic. Asking whether journalists are to blame for Trump assumes that there’s something wrong with Donald Trump, his success and/or his supporters. And the question also assumes that the media is in a position to fairly judge the media. I’ll try to minimize my own subjective bias in what follows by sticking as closely as possible to the data at hand.

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Photograph: The Daily Banter

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Photograph: Gawker

Trump had the highest name recognition to begin with

Media coverage, good or bad, can be helpful for someone looking to enter the White House. There’s a pretty clear correlation between support for a candidate and simple name recognition. That’s especially important early on in presidential campaigns when many poll respondents might be wondering “Marco who?”. As Clifford Zukin, a member of the executive council of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, explained to NPR in August last year “I think [early polls] measure name recognition – and that’s something, but is name recognition really the way you want to choose a presidential candidate?”.

But on this measure Trump had a considerable lead on Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio or any of his other rivals right from the outset. If Americans hadn’t already heard of Trump Tower, Trump Hotel or Trump Entertainment Resorts, they might well have seen Donald Trump appear on their screens while watching World Wrestling Entertainment (he was inducted into the WWE celebrity hall of fame in 2013) or been one of the 28.1 million Americans to have watched Trump host the hit NBC reality show The Apprentice.