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In a recent interview (youtube from 2:30) with The Hill, Bernie Sanders' campaign manager Nina Turner claimed there is a Bernie Blackout. That is, that the media coverage of the Democratic presidential candidate election is either biased against or actively ignoring Bernie Sanders:

The Bernie blackout is real - it's not a figment of our imagination. It almost seems like every morning these networks gets a script that says ‘blackout Bernie Sanders,’ even though he’s polling very high — he’s either number one or number two — he’s been durable, he’s gone up in the polls as of late.

In 2016, there were similar allegations of a Bernie blackout. Here for example is an article by Charles M. Blow, who according to some sources, coined the term "Bernie blackout."

My question is what evidence is there for a Bernie blackout? Either during the 2016 or 2020 election campaign? Have American media stations accused of ignoring Bernie Sanders admitted that they are doing it? Have they responded to the allegations?

To avoid getting into opinion-land, I want answers to reference studies or analyses and/or use numbers to back up any claims. Is Nina Turner right or wrong?

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    I think this is a good question, but I question our ability to accurately measure the "Bernie blackout", if it exists. The idea is basically that Sanders gets less attention than he deserves, but how do we decide how much he deserves? Maybe polling averages? – divibisan Dec 7 '19 at 1:28
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    The idea is for you to cite sources and numbers. Either in support of the Bernie blackout theory or against it. – Björn Lindqvist Dec 7 '19 at 1:37
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    My worry is that you could take the same amount of coverage (let's say 20hrs a week) and say, with equal validity, that it is less than he deserves or more than he deserves, based on your opinion of Sanders. I worry the answers are just going to come down to whether people like him (and thus he deserves more coverage) or not (in which case he doesn't). Maybe people will prove me wrong (I upvoted since I am interested in seeing the answers). – divibisan Dec 7 '19 at 1:44
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    Here are 2 sources with numbers that might be useful from InTheseTimes and Vogue. I still think it's borderline opinion based, but it might be possible to answer without crossing the line – divibisan Dec 7 '19 at 2:57
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    Let's not forget that the key word in the primarily opinion based close reason is primarily, not opinion. Answers that point to numbers are good enough. (For a definition of good enough that includes the answer getting downvoted to oblivion if the numbers don't actually add up). – yannis Dec 7 '19 at 11:14
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Yes, there appears to be at least a minor bias against Sanders from the data collected by the NYTimes. Their article runs on data through to 4th December, so it's pretty current.

They've ranked each candidate by polling number and Weekly News Coverage.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. 26% #1

Elizabeth Warren 16% #2

Michael R. Bloomberg 2% #3

Pete Buttigieg 12% #4

Bernie Sanders 16% #5

As you can see from the numbers here Bernie is getting less weekly news coverage than the rest of the front runners. Even though he polls higher or equal to everyone except Biden.

Bloomberg is clearly an outlier, caused by the splashy way he's entered the campaign later and with his own money.

The same article shows the total news mentions over the year;

Joseph R. Biden Jr. 65,470

Elizabeth Warren 25,213

Bernie Sanders 23,955

Pete Buttigieg 8,749

These are raw figured and are better than ranking in terms of drawing conclusions. The year to date totals would suggest that Bernie receives a reasonable level of coverage to polling numbers. Biden's numbers are obviously inflated by the Ukraine issue as well as being the front runner for a long period.

That said, for the overall figures to be close, but Sanders to be dropping down on the weekly figures reinforces the idea that there is a lack of coverage, or Bernie Blackout at present. Though it's not clear how large that drop is, as the Weekly numbers have only a rank, rather than data. With Sanders being 5 out of 5 big names, it's really difficult to match polls/coverage with any confidence.

Of course, no news outlet is "required" to cover the candidates in proportion to their polling positions. However given the need of a news organisation to at least appear relevant and connected to reality there should be a strong correlation between polling numbers and coverage.


The annual figures are pulled from GDELT according the attribution on the NYTimes article. Having a play with their website looking for Sanders and Warren data in the last week.

Bernie Sanders; Normalised Coverage, last week, Sanders, 0.2 to 1.2%

Elizabeth Warren; Normalised Coverage, last week, Warren, 0.5 to 2%

If you note the scales on these charts, you can see Warren's coverage is almost double that of Sanders'.

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  • Five-Thirty-Eight also appears to be tracking candidate mentions. – PoloHoleSet Dec 9 '19 at 14:42
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    @PoloHoleSet Best Five-Thirty-Eight data I've found is; fivethirtyeight.com/features/… Which shows a similarly low count for Bernie. Data is based on GDELT again. If there's another can you provide a link? – Jontia Dec 9 '19 at 14:52
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    When I was doing a Google search, I just happened to see several links about candidate mention counts. I didn't check into them in any great detail. That's why I used the word "appears" in my comment. The first one I looked at says it is looking at Media Cloud (open source), and then TV News Archive. If those don't use that same DGELT information, then that might be an additional source. Here's a link to that article, which has links to those sources - fivethirtyeight.com/features/… – PoloHoleSet Dec 9 '19 at 15:05
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I think the answer here lies in a misconception of what news do or are supposed to do. Turner is essentially saying that because Sanders is doing well in polls he should get a lot of news coverage. This is not how news sources decide what they do or do not cover.

Especially in the US most news sources are private and profit oriented. Even the ones that are not care mostly about getting a large and captivated audience. Reporting actual facts ordered by importance is a possible strategy to achieve that but it is far away from the most successful one. Showing news that invoke fear, shock or even just curiosity tend to work better.

I haven't followed the US primaries very closely but if Sanders is mostly suggesting mainstream realistic policy options and making slow steady changes in his polling numbers this could be considered not as news worthy as some more outrageous ideas or drasting polling swings by his competitors.

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  • "This is not how news sources decide what they do or do not cover." Isn't it? With a few spikes for low polls but "interesting" candidates in a run up to an election coverage based on polling is pretty much exactly how new sources decide what to cover as far as I can tell. Coverage goes to those winning, that's why getting out early is so advantageous. – Jontia Dec 9 '19 at 13:14
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    @Jontia That was the point I was trying to make. "Interesting" is not the same as "polling high". The coverage is not proportional to the polling results. The two are still positively correlated of course, but the simple argument high polling leads to lots of coverage is wrong. – quarague Dec 9 '19 at 13:50
  • I think the "interesting" argument makes sense when you get low polling with high coverage. It doesn't make sense when coverage is lower with high polling, the level of polling itself is what makes most candidates interesting. In this instance with Warren and Sanders being on very similar numbers I think there is some merit in the bias accusation. Obviously there's never going to be a simple relationship formula like x% polling = y% coverage, even for "ordinary" candidates. – Jontia Dec 9 '19 at 13:53
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    @quarague - But when the news story is about who is doing well or isn't, then you've already chosen a topic that is or isn't as "sexy" as that particular one is or isn't. Mentioning all the top candidates, how they've fallen or risen, except for Sanders (including several as emerging contenders who are well below him in the ratings) belies the idea that it's about whether you are doing a story exclusively about Sanders or not. commondreams.org/news/2019/12/03/… – PoloHoleSet Dec 9 '19 at 14:39
  • This answer is OT imho, because the question is whether Sanders actually got less coverage. That he's entitled to it it's not something claimed by the OP, but by Sander's spokesperson. I doubt the OP actually subscribes to that spokesperson's position on this matter. So your "frame challenge" is really just "I agree with your premise", which is not the kind of answers we expect here. Also note the OP has requested data, not opinion/endorsements. – Fizz Mar 21 at 18:30
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In the event no answer turns up with a proper research paper, I'd suggest that the evidence is mixed based on my own anecdotal experience.

I semi-regularly follow a slew of comedy hosts and can suggest that, on the comedy shows I watch at least, Sanders gets a periodic mention. It's usually a lighthearted joke, and it's about as often as other Democratic front runners except Biden. But Biden stands out for the worst possible reasons: due to his gaffs, his cringeworthy behavior with women, his harrowing record, and so forth.

I also follow a mix of wonkish shows and podcasts that range from daily news to weekly analysis of what's going on. On those, the main attractions are Warren, due to the amount of policy plans she's been receiving, and Biden, for the same terrible reason as above. (Harris was a close third that springs to mind, and it was due to her scathing record on criminal justice. She got thrashed for it so many times that I'm amazed she lasted this long into the race. Beto was up there in the list too, but mostly for the wrong reasons too. I think Kara Swisher's "he's a man-boy of the type of that made me turn into a lesbian" or something to that effect sums up the scathing commentary on him fairly well.) When a Warren policy plan gets discussed, Sanders almost always gets thrown into the conversation as a comparison point. The topic is Warren rather than Sanders, but it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that the hosts are ignoring Sanders. This may be where the rub lies, though.

As to the news outlets I'm reading, it's again Warren and Biden that stand out -- for the same reasons, and with Sanders getting mentioned for the same reasons. (One exception is the Intercept, where Sanders gets mentioned far more than any other candidate, and where it is Warren who gets contrasted instead. But the Intercept admittedly is the kind of outlet where they'd make the argument that Sanders is too right wing.)

Anyway, in short, and insofar as I'm experiencing it as a heavy news consumer, Sanders is getting coverage in my own (mostly left leaning) news bubble. But the issue is that the main time Sanders gets covered, it is because he's getting contrasted with Warren, with the latter being the actual topic. And the fix seems simple enough: Sanders would get more coverage in my own news bubble if he'd release more policy plans.

I should add that while I heavily consume news, I don't watch TV proper nor do I live in the US. So the reality on the ground, with Fox News and Sinclair group channels dominating the news landscape, might escape me.


Update: it seems that the Intercept ran the numbers and made a video on the topic. Judging by their reporting, the main TV networks are ignoring Sanders indeed.

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