Accuracy in Media

Last week, the mainstream media’s coverage emphasized the “unstoppable” potential for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after he won the Nevada caucuses. But after Super Tuesday results, the media doubled down on favorable coverage of former vice president Joe Biden.

The mainstream media openly wondered whether Sanders’s campaign was “unstoppable” and their headlines reflected that sentiment. As Accuracy in Media reported, NBC News headlined its concerns about Sanders and wrote, “Unstoppable? Bernie Sanders heads into South Carolina stronger than ever.” Time’s headline read, “Bernie Sanders Wins Again in Nevada. Can He Be Stopped?” USA Today’s take was, “Bernie Sanders’ Nevada win forces Democrats to reckon with potential impact of his nomination.” Fox News chimed in, too, saying, “Sanders’ win in Nevada reinforces his front-runner status, draws more attacks from rivals.”

But this week, the media’s headlines flipped the script and offered favorable coverage for Biden. The media’s about-face on Sanders and Biden coverage came from Biden’s South Carolina primary victory over the weekend, when he trounced opponents by a double-digit margin. Biden won more than 48 percent of the vote and the next-closest candidate, Sanders, finished with almost 20 percent of the vote. Biden’s 28-percentage-point margin-of-victory spurred favorable media coverage in the days since, with the likes of NBC News calling his South Carolina win a “resounding victory” and “a much-needed shot in the arm.” National Public Radio agreed with NBC News’ assessment and called it “a super day.”

Biden then surprised the media with multiple Super Tuesday wins, such as winning five states he did not campaign in and added more delegates to his delegate total.

On Wednesday, the media continued its positive tone about Biden’s campaign. One CNN analysis headlined the new narrative, “Biden’s older voters are showing up. Sanders’ young voters aren’t.” The analysis concluded that Sanders’ claim that he will generate significant voter turnout among young people fell flat.

NBC News agreed with CNN and noted “warning signs” for Sanders’ campaign. Its analysis said that his campaign “isn’t producing the turnout boom among millennials and Gen Z voters that Sanders, and many experts, say is necessary if he’s to seize the nomination.”

The media’s volatile campaign coverage demonstrated how quickly it changes its narratives. But the media should refrain and shy away from dramatic headlines, such as Sanders’s “unstoppable” campaign, until the primary results are finalized. The media’s job is to report and inform voters, not influence voters with its narratives. It has done a poor job of impartial news coverage in the 2020 race so far and it must do better as the primary race heats up heading into the summer.

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