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How The Media Has — And Hasn’t — Covered Tara Reade’s Allegation

Rather than dominating the news cycle, former Senate staffer Tara Reade’s recent allegation that former Vice President Joe Biden sexually assaulted her has been slow to receive coverage in many outlets.

Reade first stepped forward in spring 2019 as one of several women who accused Biden of inappropriate touching, but it wasn’t until March 25, 2020, that Reade alleged Biden had sexually assaulted her while she was a staffer in his office in 1993. In a podcast interview with left-leaning commentator Katie Halper, Reade accused Biden of pushing her against a wall, reaching under her skirt and penetrating her with his fingers. (While some of Reade’s family and friends say Reade told them about the incident shortly thereafter, other Biden staffers at the time do not recall hearing about it, and Biden has denied that it ever took place.) But the story wasn’t really featured in the mainstream media until after April 12, when The New York Times published an in-depth investigation of Reade’s claims.

Since then, the accusation has gotten more attention, starting on April 24, when a “Larry King Live” clip from 1993 emerged in which a caller who may be Reade’s mother describes her daughter’s “problems” with a “prominent senator.” Coverage continued to climb after April 27, when Reade’s former neighbor said that Reade had told her details about the alleged assault in the mid-1990s, and May 1, when Biden himself made his first public comment on the allegation. Nevertheless, our analysis of closed captioning data for Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, pulled from the TV News Archive,1 and of online news articles from the Media Cloud database2 finds that the volume of coverage of the allegation remained low until very recently, and it has gotten more attention from right-leaning outlets, both on television and online.

Of the three major cable news channels, Fox News has devoted the most attention to Reade so far.3 Through Friday, May 1, Fox News mentioned Reade in 371 clips collected by the TV News Archive — 344 of them on or after April 24. Many of these mentions were by the channel’s conservative commentators criticizing Democrats and the media for not giving Reade’s allegation more air time.

By contrast, CNN and MSNBC mostly covered the story with on-air interviews of reporters who had investigated the allegation — but these channels also covered Reade much less. Through May 1, CNN had only mentioned Reade in 35 clips, the first of which aired on April 25. And MSNBC barely mentioned her until last Friday, when Biden personally appeared on the network to deny Reade’s claims. (According to what Reade has told The New York Times, neither CNN nor MSNBC has asked to interview her on air, though they have spoken to her off camera.)

But while cable news didn’t mention Reade at all when the sexual assault allegation was first revealed, online news outlets did. After the story broke on March 25, conservative news organizations like The Blaze and the Daily Caller picked it up right away. But while right-leaning outlets covered the story most heavily, HuffPost, Vox and The Guardian also wrote about the allegations in March. The Guardian and Vox even noted then how the story wasn’t yet appearing in mainstream news outlets. Fox News, which hadn’t yet mentioned Reade on TV, also published an article online about the allegations on March 27. Starting in April, mainstream media coverage of the allegation began to pick up, but the volume of coverage mentioning Reade has still increased the most in conservative-leaning online media, which sometimes published multiple articles a day on the story.4

At first, though, the headlines about the allegation were similar regardless of the outlet’s ideological bent — compare Breitbart’s “Joe Biden Faces New Sexual Assault Allegation from Former Staffer” to HuffPost’s “Joe Biden Accused Of Sexually Assaulting Senate Aide In 1993,” for example. But if you were looking for articles about the story’s day-to-day developments, such as the emergence of the “Larry King Live” clip, conservative outlets were generally the place to look (although the King clip was originally reported by The Intercept, which is regarded as left-leaning). And after The New York Times’s investigation into Reade’s claims, many conservative outlets also criticized its handling of the story, which evolved into articles about the lack of mainstream media coverage of the allegation.

Once the Times published its investigation in mid-April, other mainstream news organizations began covering the story as well. Some, like Time and Reuters, devoted entire articles to the allegation, but for others, like The Atlantic and Politico, early mentions of Reade appeared in articles that did not focus on her. And others, like CNN and CBS News, mentioned Reade’s allegation not as a straightforward breaking news story but in the context of how other Democrats were reacting. In general, the mainstream media was less likely than conservative outlets to publish follow-up stories containing new developments in the allegation, although that began to change last week as some mainstream outlets joined conservative ones in questioning Biden’s silence on the allegation, which may have led to his appearance on MSNBC on Friday.

Of course, one thing this data can’t tell us is how much coverage the allegation should be receiving; there is no “correct” answer. It could be, as some have argued, that mainstream media outlets have a liberal bias and are avoiding the story for that reason — or it could be that conservative media outlets are simply likelier to run with a story that makes a Democrat look bad. It’s also possible that mainstream outlets investigated the claims and felt that the supporting evidence they were able to find was not enough for them to publish the story.

It’s also difficult to compare coverage of these sexual assault allegations with coverage of the allegations made against President Trump, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh or other politicians who have faced similar scandals. Any number of factors — such as the prominence of the person being accused, the seriousness of the allegations and the number of accusers — can influence the amount of media coverage a sexual assault allegation receives, and Biden’s situation is not necessarily a close match along all of these dimensions. (Most obviously, the only other politician of similar prominence to face sexual assault allegations recently — Trump — faced several of them, and also was infamously caught on video bragging about his sexual pursuits.)

And perhaps the biggest confounder is the news environment in which this story has arisen. The coronavirus pandemic is currently sucking up so much of the media oxygen that it is unlikely that any political story would be covered as thoroughly as it would be in normal times. So while it seems clear that coverage of Reade’s allegation has so far been limited, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why that is.



FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Biden responds to sexual assault allegations

Footnotes

  1. We ran a search of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN coverage in the TV News Archive using the GDELT Television API. In that database, daily news footage is split into 15-second clips, and searches return the clips that contain a mention of our search query, which was “Tara Reade” or “Tara Read” or “Tara Reed” or “Tara Reid,” to account for the types of misspellings commonly seen in closed captions. The cutoff for measuring coverage for any given day is midnight Eastern Time.

  2. We searched for stories that included Reade’s first and last name, with a wildcard marker on “Reade” to ensure we didn’t miss constructions such as “Tara Reade’s allegation.” Media Cloud dates articles based on when the article page says the story was published, which means that it is insensitive to time zones and its cutoff times each day may be slightly different than the times used for the cable news data.

  3. We also searched the closed captioning data for clips containing Biden’s name along with the words “sexual” or “sexually,” but that search query revealed a similar pattern of coverage to clips that mentioned Reade by name.

  4. Of the 32 outlets in Media Cloud’s U.S. Top Online News 2017 collection — a list of top news websites based on data from comScore, Activate and Alexa — 28 contained articles matching our query for Tara Reade. Of those, we classified six outlets (Fox News, Daily Caller, Breitbart, The Blaze, NewsMax and Drudge Report) as conservative based on Media Cloud’s analysis of who retweeted that outlet and whether they also retweeted Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta is a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics.

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