Thursday, January 28, 2016

Obama 2008 received 3x more media coverage than Sanders 2016

Many supporters of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders have claimed that there is a media blackout in which Bernie Sanders has been for whatever reason blocked from communicating his campaign message. Combined with a dramatically cut democratic debate scheme (from 18 in 2008 with Obama to 4 in 2016 with Sanders) scheduled on days of the week least likely to be viewed by a wide audience this is seen as a significant attempt to rig the primary to ensure Clinton gets the nomination.

Despite a strongly supported petitions with nearly 120 thousand signatories and 30 thousand signatories demanding more debates, Debbie Wassermann Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and former campaign co-manager for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign has repeatedly denied the possibility of considering more debates.

Combined with a complex fiasco earlier in the year dubbed "DataGate" in which the DNC temporarily shut down the Sanders campaign from accessing critical voter information two days before the third debate based information presented by Schultz and refuted by the vendor. Access to the data was quickly restored after a petition demanding action gathered 285 thousand signatures in less than 48 hours.

With these two scandals in mind, Sanders supporters have become increasingly paranoid of what they view as the "establishment" acting to protect its candidate, Hillary. In this light, they have been very frustrated by the lack of media coverage of Sanders. Supporters claim that he and his views are almost entirely unrepresented by the news media.

I have been wary of jumping on this bandwagon. It seems natural that the democratic front-runner would get more coverage than that of a less known rival. Clinton naturally attracts media attention as she seems to have a new scandal every day while Sanders seems to be a boy scout who apart from being jailed for protesting segregation in the 60s, not enriching himself from private speaking fees and book deals, adamantly defending the rights of the downtrodden, and standing up to the most powerful people in the world really has little "newsworthy" about him.

Setting aside the difficult question of what the media considers "newsworthy", I would like to ask the question, "Is Sanders getting more or less media coverage than Obama got in 2007/2008?"

In order to answer this question, I look back at the front pages of online newspapers from 2015 and 2007. Starting on January 1st and going up till yesterday, I scraped the headlines of Google News, Yahoo News, Huffington Post, Fox News, NPR, and the New York Times.

Table 1: This tables shows the frequency the name "Sanders", "Obama", or "Clinton" (or "Bernie", "Barack", or "Hillary") have come up in each of the news sources for which headlines were recorded in the current race compared with that of the 2008 race. The columns Sander/Clinton and Obama/Clinton show the relative frequency. The highlighted rows show the relevant headline ratios with numbers less than 1 indicating the ratio of headlines featuring a challenger to that of Clinton.

Web N Sanders  Obama  Clinton  Sanders/Clinton  Obama/Clinton
2008 NYT 25902 1 100 138 0.01 0.72
2008 Fox 39132 10 167 357 0.03 0.47
2008 Google 8452 0 103 131 0.00 0.79
2008 HuffPost 1281 0 40 60 0.00 0.67
2008 NPR 20878 0 90 94 0.00 0.96
2008 Yahoo 27308 3 266 334 0.01 0.80
2016 NYT 36703 142 592 531 0.27 1.11
2016 Fox 32971 78 1284 898 0.09 1.43
2016 Google 21036 67 378 253 0.26 1.49
2016 HuffPost 45131 236 925 549 0.43 1.68
2016 NPR 9216 52 259 106 0.49 2.44
2016 Yahoo 19844 44 346 206 0.21 1.68

From Table 1, we can see that NPR is the news network which has the most balanced coverage of Obama in 2008 and Sanders in 2016. Fox is the least balanced of the networks with almost no coverage of Sanders. It is worth noting the the coverage of Sanders is abysmal in general, with no agency reporting on Sanders even half as much as Clinton. This is a significant deviation from Obama's race against Clinton in which only Fox reported on him with slightly less than 50% coverage.

Table 2: This table shows the total number of news reports across all agencies for each candidate in each race. 

Race  N  Sanders  Obama  Clinton  Sanders/Clinton  Obama/Clinton
2016  164901 619 3784 2543 0.24 1.49
2008  122953 14 766 1114 0.01 0.69

From Table 2 we can see that both candidates Sanders and Obama have not received nearly as much coverage by the media as their rival Hillary Clinton. Sanders however seems to be at significant disadvantage compared with Obama at the same time in the previous race as Obama on average had about two articles written about him for every three written about Clinton. Sanders has significantly less coverage with only one article written about him for every four written about Clinton.

By this time in the 2008 primary race, Senator Obama had received 2.8 times as much coverage relative to his rival Hillary Clinton as Senator Sanders (.69/.24=2.8). This is despite Sanders doing better than Obama in many key metrics (Crowds, Donations, and Polling).

With Sanders taking the lead in New Hampshire and neck and neck with Clinton in Iowa, we might wonder if coverage is improving for the Sander's campaign.

Figure 1: The top curve is the relative frequency of Obama coverage relative to that of Clinton while the bottom curve is that of senator Sanders to that of Clinton. A 1 on the y axis represents equal coverage of the challenger with that of Clinton.
From Figure 1 we can see that despite a remarkable performance in energizing large crowds, doing well on polls, and collecting an immense quantity of donations, media coverage appears to be dreadful for Sanders with even in the current peak, for every two stories about Clinton, there is only one story about Sanders.

This is probably in part due to how the DNC and the Clinton camp (doubtful there exists any difference) appear to have white washed the primary, restricting the debate structure and constantly adjusting Clinton's positions so that they appear indistinguishable from that of Sanders'.
Figure 2: Shows a popular twitter meme which conveys the frustration many have with the media.

In number of written articles Bernie has suffered due to an apparent media blackout. He has also suffered in lack of airtime. We can see this from Figure 2, in the number of minutes of coverage of him aired as of the 20th of December.

The criticisms of the DNC rigging the debate process and the bias in which candidate the media chooses to follow are significant concerns for any democracy. This all fits well within a "systemic" corruption framework of thinking. However, this framework might not accurately fit what is actually happening with the media and within the DNC.  Additional investigation is required before further conclusions can be made.

But even in the presence of uncertainty as to the true nature of the presidential campaign. Accusations such as these and others levied against the Hillary Clinton and the DNC should be investigated with due diligence as they represent a fundamental threat to the existence of the democracy far more pernicious and dangerous than anything Middle Eastern terrorists can muster.


  1. May be interesting to put in the 2007 and 2015 debate dates to see if the restricted schedule had an impact. A cursory glance suggests the debates didn't really change Obama's coverage.,_2008

    Also, there are multiple Clintons. Maybe look for "Mrs. Clinton" or "Hillary Clinton" jointly? Or tabulate "Chelsea Clinton", "Ms. Clinton", "Mr. Clinton", etc. to see whether it matters. Granted, Hillary will be the clear front page star.

    You also mentioned the scandals. You can scrape for scandal keywords to see whether the coverage is favorable. It is possible Sanders isn't mentioned as frequently but his coverage is positive, while Clinton's coverage is constant and terrible. That would support why Sanders is getting such traction.

    1. Excellent points! I just wanted to put this out there first then follow up with a couple of other articles getting into some of these other issues.

    2. As for the positive or negativity of the headlines, I was not sure how to classify the sentiment. I need to do some research to see how this is typically done.

  2. I suspect that a big reason might be Trump. There's only so much oxygen, and he's sucking it all up.

    1. Perhaps. At least in so much as he and other republicans have until very lately attacked Hillary almost exclusively.