What do Americans really think of election coverage?

More Americans think that the media are too easy on candidates than in 2012 or 2008, according to a Pew Research Center poll. But they're also more likely to say that 'their' candidates are treated too harshly.

Richard Drew/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (l.), is interviewed by co-hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie on the NBC 'Today' television program, in New York, on April 21, 2016.

Both presidential campaigns have been outspoken in saying that they think the media are too hard on them. But do Americans agree?

More Americans think the media are letting presidential candidates off easy than in previous years, according to a poll released by the Pew Research Center on Thursday. In the case of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, 27 percent of Americans think the media is too easy on him, compared to 20 percent who reported feeling that way about coverage of the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, and 15 percent for John McCain in 2008. Some 33 percent of Americans think coverage of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is too easy, compared to 28 percent and 31 percent for President Obama in 2012 and 2008, respectively, according to the survey.

Positive attitudes toward the media have reportedly been declining since the 1970s. Less than one-third of people now say that they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. Scholars say this is part of a larger trend in poor attitudes toward institutions generally, compounded by a rise in the number of media outlets and the polarization of these outlets. 

When people "go into their newsfeed or turn on the TV and they're getting information from a wide array of sources, and some of them are less than reputable ... it contributes to the sense" that all media is untrustworthy, David Jones, a professor of political science at James Madison University, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Gretel Kauffman earlier this month. 

A question about Americans’ attitude toward “the media” could refer to information expressing all kinds of opinions, in forums as large as a TV network or national newspaper or as small as a Twitter feed. 

This polarity and range of sources could help explain why rising numbers of Americans also think that “the media” is being unnecessarily harsh – on their chosen candidates, that is. Pew reported that three-in-ten Democrats and independents who lean Democratic are likely to see coverage of Mrs. Clinton as too tough. Nearly half of Republican surveyed – 46 percent – believe that coverage of Mr. Trump has been too tough.

Finding the middle ground certainly isn’t easy. And nowhere is this clearer than in the high-stakes world of interviews and presidential debates. The Associated Press highlighted the demands placed on moderators with these guidelines offered during the 2012 election cycle:

Craft sharp questions to get the candidates to talk, while being meticulously fair not to challenge one more than another. Keep an eye on the clock so one candidate doesn't get to hog the time. Don't be bullied; be firm in forcing the candidates to move on. But be flexible enough to keep a productive discussion flowing. Know the difference. Keep the focus off yourself. And do it all on live television before some 60 million people.

Matt Lauer’s performance at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief forum earlier this month was widely panned, with critics saying that he focused too heavily on Clinton’s email server and failed to fact-check some of Trump’s statements. Candy Crowley, whose moderation of a 2012 debate Rush Limbaugh described as “an act of journalistic terror,” later told the Associated Press that she knew from the beginning that “somebody is always going to be unhappy no matter what you do.”

For some, the media’s election coverage – and Americans’ trust in the media on the basis of this coverage – is critical to American democracy.

"Citizens need information, they need to get it from the media. The First Amendment was set up to create a media that served as a surrogate role for the public, and if the public is not engaged and they move on and they're not consuming news ... it's really a disservice and it hurts our democracy a lot," Jeff McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University, told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly following a 2014 Gallup poll.

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