A Report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy Analyzes News Coverage of President Trump’s First 100 Days

A new report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzes news coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days in office.

The report is based on an analysis of news reports in the print editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, the main newscasts of CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC, and three European news outlets (The UK’s Financial Times and BBC, and Germany’s ARD).

Findings include:

  • President Trump dominated media coverage in the outlets and programs analyzed, with Trump being the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents. He was also the featured speaker in nearly two-thirds of his coverage.
  • Republican voices accounted for 80 percent of what newsmakers said about the Trump presidency, compared to only 6 percent for Democrats and 3 percent for those involved in anti-Trump protests.
  • European reporters were more likely than American journalists to directly question Trump’s fitness for office.
  • Trump has received unsparing coverage for most weeks of his presidency, without a single major topic where Trump’s coverage, on balance, was more positive than negative, setting a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president.
  • Fox was the only news outlet in the study that came close to giving Trump positive coverage overall, however, there was variation in the tone of Fox’s coverage depending on the topic.

This research is partially funded by Rebecca Donatelli, with special thanks to the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

Listen to Thomas Patterson discuss the report with Shorenstein Center director Nicco Mele on our Media and Politics Podcast. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, iHeart Radio or Stitcher. 

Introduction and Methodology

“The press is your enemy,” said the president. “Enemies. Understand that? . . . Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”

Donald Trump’s ongoing feud with the media is not the first time a president has felt wronged by the press. The opening words are those of Richard Nixon.[1] Virtually every president since Nixon has obsessed over what they’ve seen as unfair treatment by the press. In the first two years of his presidency, Bill Clinton persuaded Congress to enact a tax increase on upper incomes, a family leave program, NAFTA, deficit reduction, the Brady bill, a youth training program, and other initiatives, yet was mired in a slew of headlines about Travelgate, Whitewater, and other alleged wrongdoings.  In a Rolling Stone interview, Clinton exploded at his treatment by the press: “I’ve fought more damn battles here than any president in 20 years with the possible exception of Reagan’s first budget and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press. I am damn sick and tired of it.”[2]

What’s different with President Trump is that he’s taken the fight to the press, openly and with relish. Nixon worked largely behind the scenes, threatening to take away broadcasters’ licenses if they didn’t shape up. Ronald Reagan created what amounted to a White House news service, feeding stories directly to local news outlets in order to bypass the national press. George W. Bush extended that strategy, adding video feeds to the mix. Clinton and Barack Obama relied on one-on-one interviews with reporters in an effort to get out their side of the story. During his presidency, Obama held more than a thousand such interviews.[3]

Trump’s dislike of the press was slow in coming. When he announced his presidential candidacy, journalists embraced him, and he returned the favor.  Trump received far more coverage, and far more positive coverage, than did his Republican rivals.[4] Only after he had secured the Republican nomination did the press sharpen its scrutiny and, as his news coverage turned negative, Trump turned on the press. [5] Trump tweeted that the “election is being rigged by the media, in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign.”[6] It’s been a running battle ever since. On his 100th day in office, he became the first president in more than three decades to skip the White House Correspondents Dinner, choosing instead to go to Pennsylvania for a rally with supporters. Said Trump: “I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from the Washington swamp spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people.”

This paper examines Trump’s first 100 days in office, not through the lens of what he said about the news media, but what they reported about him. The research is based on news coverage in the print editions of three U.S. daily papers (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post), the main newscasts of four U.S. television networks (CBS Evening News, CNN’s The Situation Room, Fox’s Special Report, and NBC Nightly News), and three European news outlets (Financial Times, based in London; BBC, Britain’s public service broadcaster; and ARD, Germany’s oldest public service broadcaster). The president’s role as a global leader, and Trump’s pledge to redefine that role, prompted the inclusion of European news in the study.[7]

The newspaper analysis covers all sections except sports, obituaries, and letters to the editor. Op-eds and editorials are included, but letters from the public are not. For television, the analysis covers the full daily content of each network’s major newscast. Network talk shows are not included. Except where individual news outlets are identified, the U.S. percentages presented in this paper are the combined averages for the seven U.S. news outlets whereas the European percentages are the combined averages for the three European news outlets.

The data for our studies are provided by Media Tenor, a firm that specializes in collecting and coding news content. Media Tenor’s coding of print and television news stories is conducted by trained full-time employees who visually evaluate the content. Coding of individual actors (in this case, Trump) is done on a comprehensive basis, capturing all mentions of more than five lines (print) or five seconds (TV) of coverage. For each report, coders identify the source(s), topic(s), and tone.

Tone is judged from the perspective of the actor. Negative stories include stories where the actor is criticized directly. An example is a headline story where Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer criticized Trump when the Labor Department’s April economic report showed that fewer jobs were created than had been predicted. Schumer was quoted as saying, in part: “Eleven weeks into his administration, we have seen nothing from President Trump on infrastructure, on trade, or on any other serious job-creating initiative.”[8] Negative stories also consist of stories where an event, trend, or development reflects unfavorably on the actor. Examples are the stories that appeared under the headlines “President Trump’s approval rating hits a new low”[9] and “GOP withdraws embattled health care bill, handing major setback to Trump, Ryan.”[10]

All Trump, All the Time

On national television, Trump was the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the usual amount.

Until the early 1960s, news coverage of national politics divided rather evenly between Congress and the president.[11] That situation began to shift in 1963, the year that the broadcast television networks expanded their evening newscasts to 30 minutes and hired the correspondents and camera crews needed to produce picture-driven news. With a national audience, the networks focused their coverage on the president who, in any case, was easier than Congress to capture on camera. Newspapers followed suit and, ever since, the president has received more coverage in the national press than all 535 members of Congress combined.[12] The White House’s dominance has been such that, on national television, the president typically accounts for roughly one-eighth of all news coverage.[13]

Even by that standard, Trump’s first 100 days were a landmark.[14] On national television, Trump was the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the usual amount.[15] It was also the case that Trump did most of the talking (see Figure 1). He was the featured speaker in nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of his coverage. Members of the administration, including his press secretary, accounted for 11 percent of the sound bites. Other Republicans, including Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, accounted for 4 percent. Altogether, Republicans, inside and outside the administration, accounted for 80 percent of what newsmakers said about the Trump presidency.

Figure 1. Who Does the Talking When Trump Is the Story?

Source: Media Tenor, January 20-April 29, 2017. Excludes statements of news anchors and reporters. “Other” category includes, for example, experts, pundits, group spokespersons, and citizens.

For their part, Democrats did not have a large voice in Trump’s coverage, accounting for only 6 percent of the sound bites. Participants in anti-Trump protests and demonstrations accounted for an additional 3 percent.

For their part, Democrats did not have a large voice in Trump’s coverage, accounting for only 6 percent of the sound bites.

The media have been fascinated by Trump since the first days of his presidential candidacy. Our studies of 2016 presidential election coverage found that Trump received more news coverage than rival candidates during virtually every week of the campaign.[16] The reason is clear enough. Trump is a journalist’s dream. Reporters are tuned to what’s new and different, better yet if it’s laced with controversy. Trump delivers that type of material by the shovel full. Trump is also good for business.[17] News ratings were slumping until Trump entered the arena.  Said one network executive, “[Trump] may not be good for America, but [he’s] damn good for [us].”[18]

Read the full Report at Shorensteincenter.org

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