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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Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

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