2020 Presidential Race Steamrolls Nearly All Else in TV Coverage

2020 Presidential Race Steamrolls Nearly All Else in TV Coverage
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
2020 Presidential Race Steamrolls Nearly All Else in TV Coverage
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
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With the presidential race reaching a fever pitch among Democratic hopefuls, it may seem as if the news has become wall-to-wall campaign coverage. An examination of the TV numbers suggests there is some truth to this perception, with the combined television news airtime devoted to President Trump and the 2020 Democrats reaching as high as 40% of daily airtime since the start of this month.

The timeline below shows the percentage of daily airtime on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from Jan. 1, 2019 through Feb. 25, 2020 that mentioned one of the Democratic candidates, using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project. (Click to enlarge the image.)

Mentions of the candidates began increasing sharply on Feb. 1, 2020 in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, reinforcing that event’s role in driving media coverage of presidential races. On a typical day thus far this month, mentions of the Democratic candidates have accounted for 10% to as much as 36% of total airtime on the three channels.

The “streamgraph” below shows the total number of mentions of each of the major candidates in 2020. (A steamgraph is an area chart where the data series are stacked on top and below of each other around a central axis; positioning above/below is not meaningful -- only the relative height of each series.) February marked the rise of Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, while coverage of Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar has steadily decreased. As of this week, Sanders now accounts for as many mentions as the rest of the 2020 field combined, showing how much the race now centers on him and how much media coverage of the race has expanded this month.

Combining mentions of the Democratic field with those of Donald Trump, the graphic below shows that the total airtime in February 2020 devoted to either the presidency or the 2020 race has averaged between 25% to 45%, accounting for just over a third of total airtime each day since last week.

Even as the coronavirus has spread globally, it has accounted for less than 1% of the three channels’ combined airtime on average this month, rising to just 3% in the last few days. That’s less than a tenth of the attention Bernie Sanders alone gets each day.

Putting this all together, the 2020 presidential race has so saturated television news it is largely displacing everything else and making for campaign-dominant coverage -- with eight months still to go until Election Day.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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