What Drove Media Coverage of the Migrant Caravan?

Here in leftyville, it’s an article of faith that hysteria over the migrant caravan from Honduras is purely an invention of Donald Trump, one that the media, inexplicably, went along with. I certainly believe that, and during lunch it occurred to me that it might be interesting to check out Google Trends to test this theory.

To my surprise, it didn’t really check out. So I drove home to put together a chart showing that we had gotten this one wrong. But then I dumped everything into Excel and looked a little more closely and—well, the Trump/media hacking theory actually does check out. At least, I think it does. Here’s a chart showing public interest in the caravan as measured by Google Trends:

When the caravan forms around October 13, the media isn’t reporting it and public interest is about zero. After a few days of Trump talking about it, it finally catches on. Then the caravan crosses into Mexico, another newsworthy moment, but nothing happens. It’s not until October 22 and 23, when the New York Times splashes a couple of big, scary pictures on its front page that hysteria really takes off.

But then interest drops off, so Trump doubles down, calling the caravan “an invasion of our country.” Interest immediately jumps as the media reports this, even though there’s really nothing inherently newsworthy about it. Finally, on November 4 at 7 pm, just before Election Day, interest spikes up as Trump delivers a stemwinding rally focused almost wholly on immigration.

November 5 is the last day to make an impression on voters. On November 6, press attention is focused solely on the election and interest in the caravan plummets. On November 7 it plummets again. Today, as near as I can tell, it’s flattening out at about the level it had in mid-October, when hardly anyone cared.

There’s always a chicken-and-egg problem with this stuff. Does public interest drive media coverage, which is perfectly normal, or does media coverage drive public interest? If the latter, what drives the media coverage in the first place? In this case, media coverage seems to mostly follow Trump, not the specific events that would be newsworthy on their own merits. This suggests that, in fact, they’re taking their cues from Trump and Fox News more than they are from their own independent news judgment. But honestly, it’s hard to say for sure, isn’t it?

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate