Whether you love Donald Trump or hate him (is anybody undecided?), the media coverage of him is like no other President in the country’s history.
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Media, Politics and Public Policy has researched the coverage of Trump during his first 100 days and found some glaring examples of how Trump coverage is different from previous Presidents.
The researchers based their analysis of news reports by the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC, the UK’s Financial Times, the BBC and German’s ARD.
The first thing that stands out is how much the media have covered Trump. “On national television, Trump was the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the usual amount.” And Trump was the featured speaker in two-thirds of those stories.
But dominating the news has not translated into positive coverage; in fact, just the opposite is true. “Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days set a new standard for negativity,” the study finds. “Of news reports with a clear tone, negative reports outpaced positive ones by 80 percent to 20 percent.”
By comparison, 59 percent of the stories about President Obama during his first 100 days were positive, while only 41 percent had a negative tone.
CNN and NBC had the most negative stories about Trump, while The Wall Street Journal and Fox had the lowest percentage of negative stories—70 percent by the Journal and 52 percent by Fox.
However, the researchers point out that Trump’s missteps and tweets have contributed to the kind of coverage he received. “He’s been on the defensive during most of his 100 days in office, trying to put the best face possible on executive orders, legislative initiatives, appointments, and other undertakings that have gone bad.”
The controversies have served as a ratings boost, but the researchers question whether the news media are doing their job by fixating on one person, even if he is the President. Reporters’ preoccupation with the horse race mentality of campaigns and politics may be one reason why the mainstream press failed to fully recognize Trump’s rise.
“Journalists would also do well to spend less time in Washington and more time in places where policy intersects with people’s lives,” the researchers conclude.
That’s a valid observation, but policy stories are harder to do and network executives and newspaper editors fear they will not attract eyeballs in this hyper-competitive environment.
But what is the public getting out of all this? Does the minute-by-minute reporting, analysis, reaction and more analysis of the President’s every move, every word by our major news organizations contribute significantly to our understanding of the world in which we live?
The answer may be found in a quote by CBS CEO Les Moonves in February of last year when Trump was shaking up the campaign and drawing viewers and advertisers to the networks. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said.