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?

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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

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