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A Week In Election Coverage: July 31-August 6

Khizr Khan, father of fallen US Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, speaks during the final day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, as his wife listens. Since, then Khan has openly feuded with Donald Trump in the media.
Khizr Khan, father of fallen US Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, speaks during the final day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, as his wife listens. Since, then Khan has openly feuded with Donald Trump in the media.

After two weeks off for the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions, my office is back to tracking NPR's newsmagazine and online campaign coverage. In the week starting Sunday, July 31, NPR again devoted the most stories to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. This follows the pattern we found in tracking the pre-convention weeks, as well.

For the week, there were 32 stories primarily focused on Trump to 17 mostly focused on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, two about Green Party and nominee Jill Stein (here and here, tied to the party's nominating convention) and two primarily about the Libertarian Party, including an interview with the vice presidential nominee William Weld. There were an additional 26 stories that covered both candidates or other election issues.

Some listeners and readers continue to be upset about this imbalance (they don't need our numbers to confirm what they heard and read).

Marcia Bates, from Fort Wayne, Ind., is one reader who wrote this week:

"I'm confused as to why NPR in their selection of news articles for placement in NPR News App on August 7 displayed four articles featuring Donald Trump plus two articles in which he was discussed versus only one article in which Hillary Clinton was featured. I expect higher standards of NPR for equal political time for both candidates than the mainstream press exhibits. And, I would expect that NPR would be more astute politically in understanding that Trump's outlandish and inflammatory remarks are a political strategy meant to manipulate the press into awarding him more attention and national news coverage than his opponent."

This issue is one that many newsrooms have been grappling with this campaign season; Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times had a good analysis of some of the internal newsroom debates. Trump is an extraordinary candidate by any measure, eschewing many of the conventions of candidate deportment. Eight of NPR's 32 Trump-specific stories last week were devoted to his attacks on the family of slain U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, criticisms that were widely denounced by a number of Republican leaders. At a time when the nominee and his party should be in alliance, they were feuding, which makes for an important story. The vast majority of NPR's Trump stories during the week were devoted to the controversies. But many listeners and readers continue to see NPR's reporting as free publicity for a candidate that they do not like, rather than tough, deserved scrutiny of Trump's candidacy.

While I am less concerned about the number of stories devoted to each candidate, I do continue to be concerned about the way NPR showcases its political reporting. Contrary to what some listeners heard, every newsmagazine last week had at least one story that referenced Clinton. Too often, however, NPR.org readers must scroll far down to find stories about her campaign.

As far as what the 79 pieces last week said, I found no obviously missing story. In addition to covering the controversies, the mix included reporting on Trump's improving fundraising and his outreach to the black community, an unusual endorsement for Clinton and her campaign swing through Ohio.

Happily, as well, mixed in with the "controversy" stories this past week were a number of pieces that we classify as "best practices." Our outgoing intern Shane McKeon, who has been doing the tracking this summer, highlighted some of those stories:

Listeners have told NPR they want reporters and hosts to break down and explain policy, especially from presidential candidates. Last week, there were highlights on the foreign policy front. Morning Edition host David Greene interviewed consultant Ian Bremmer on how Trump's stance toward Russia and Ukraine echoes Henry Kissinger's — "albeit not that articulately," Bremmer said. In separate segments, All Things Considered spoke to reporters from China, Russia, Mexico and Iran about how the candidates' messages are playing in those countries. The stories approached Trump and Clinton's proposed foreign policies from a fresh angle.

As for domestic policy, Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin interviewed law professor Richard Hasen about North Carolina's photo ID law that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down. Voting laws can be tricky to understand, as racial politics, history and jurisprudence get knotted up in one issue. But the interview untangled that confusion a bit, and it clarified a central tension in this case: Was there "racially discriminatory intent" in the North Carolina law? The court said yes. In an election year, these policies — which decide who will be allowed to vote — are especially important to cover.

Listeners have also said they want more fact checking. Hillary Clinton's comment that FBI Director James Comey had called her statements about her email usage "truthful" was deemed false, and it drew a thorough fact checking from NPR's Brakkton Booker.

Great election reporting also helps establish what's at stake in November. Carrie Johnson's Aug. 2 story is a solid example. She reported that some Department of Justice veterans worry Trump doesn't respect the judicial process, after he criticized judge Gonzalo Curiel in June. The Brookings Institution's Benjamin Wittes told Johnson, "The most awesome power that the federal government has over the day-to-day lives of people is not through the intelligence community and is not through the military. It's through the Department of Justice."

To that list I'd add Kelly McEvers' thoughtful interview with Khizr Khan, father of Humayun Khan, on his charged week in the glare of controversy.

We'll have another update in a couple of weeks.

Intern Shane McKeon and editorial assistant Annie Johnson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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