Compared to other recent presidents, news reports about President Trump have been more focused on his personality than his policy, and are more likely to carry negative assessments of his actions, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.
Researchers studied news stories from the early months of Trump’s presidency, determining whether each story evaluated Trump overall in a positive or negative light. If a story had at least twice as many positive as negative statements, Pew said it had an overall positive assessment of the president. The reverse was also true for stories with a negative assessment.
Fully two-thirds of news stories about Trump from his first 60 days in office were negative by that definition — more than twice the negativity seen in stories from the first 60 days of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama’s presidencies.
Meanwhile, only 5 percent of stories about Trump were positive, compared to 42 percent for Obama.
While some may be tempted to read this as evidence of media bias, the leader of Pew’s Journalism Project said that isn’t a conclusion one can draw from the study.
“Our data show that outlets with left and more mixed audiences did cover more negatively assessed elements of Trump’s early presidency, while media with right-leaning audiences covered more positively assessed,” said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew. “Whether one or all of these are in-line or out-of-line with reality is beyond the capacity of this research.”
Rather, she said, the study is trying to measure what kinds of messages people are consuming when they get their daily news.
“It is speaking about, from the public’s perspective, what is the overall evaluation of the particular event that is being discussed in this news story related to Trump and the administration?” Mitchell said.
So, for example, when a protester is quoted saying she doesn’t like Trump’s actions, that’s a negative statement. When a policy expert says Trump has made a good decision, that’s positive.
Likewise, there are some outlets where reporters openly express opinions in their news writing. Pew cited one quote from the right-leaning website Independent Journal Review, where a journalist praised national security adviser pick H.R. McMaster as “brilliant and capable.”
Likewise, on Inauguration Day, a reporter from the left-leaning Huffington Post asked, “Can the public even hold to his word a president for whom truth appears to carry almost no weight?” (Note: This wasn’t necessarily one of the articles that Pew coded.)
Mitchell said the researchers wanted to find out whether Americans’ recent polarization would be reflected in the news they choose to consume. And indeed, the researchers found that news stories about Trump were more negative at news outlets with left-leaning audiences (56 percent negative) and mixed audiences (47 percent) than at outlets with right-leaning audiences (14 percent).
Importantly, that doesn’t mean that the news outlets themselves have a particular lean; rather, it means that the audiences do. After all, Politico — generally not considered left-leaning in its coverage style — still is among Pew’s outlets with a left-leaning audience. (NPR likewise was one of the outlets with a left-leaning audience.)
What this may signal, rather, is that right-leaning audiences in particular tend to flock to outlets that cite fewer criticisms of Trump, whereas mixed and left-leaning audiences are more comfortable with outlets that cite more criticisms.
In addition, the number of sources cited seems to be connected to a story’s overall positive or negativity: “Stories with a greater mix of voices were more likely to have an overall negative sense of the president’s actions or statements,” the researchers wrote.
Stories containing a refutation of the president — a fact-check article finding him wrong, for example — likewise were much more likely to be negative. Outlets with mixed and left-leaning audiences were also more likely to refute the president than those with right-leaning audiences.
In addition to these findings, there are other potential factors in creating more negative coverage.
Thinking back to the early days of Trump’s presidency, it’s possible that events themselves drove negative assessments of the president. For example, a flurry of protests during his first weeks in office naturally may have led to more negative quotes about the president than there were for Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, who did not face protests on such a massive scale during their first weeks in office. Stories about people protesting the president might reasonably be more negative than other news stories.
Also, Trump’s White House has been notoriously leaky. Stories about leaks of damaging information likewise could have potentially driven some negative coverage.
Again, these are only possibilities — and not covered in the scope of Pew’s study, but they could have played a part in why news coverage of Trump might have had a relatively large share of negative statements.
News coverage of Trump stands out in still another way: Fewer than one-third of stories about Trump’s presidency were about his policy agenda. That’s not much, compared to news coverage of past presidents. Half of stories at the start of Obama’s presidency were about his policy agenda, and the total was even higher for Bush in 2001 and Clinton in 1993.
Once again, there’s no way of knowing exactly why news coverage of Trump focuses on his persona and not his ideology, but one can again make some educated guesses. For example, it’s possible that Trump’s wildly unorthodox style — the way his Twitter usage stirs up controversy, his willingness to publicly battle members of his own party — upends so many norms about how a president “should” act that his policies get less attention.
And it’s also true that many of the president’s policies have been presented in broad terms: Plans on parental leave, infrastructure, apprenticeships and tax overhaul were all low on detail. In other words, at times, there has been little hard policy news to cover out of this administration.
This skewing of coverage happens to dovetail with what Trump’s supporters like about him. According to an August poll from the Pew Research Center, a majority of people who approve of Trump — 54 percent — said his approach and personality are what they like most about him, compared to only 14 percent who said it was his policies and values.
Editor’s note: Reporter Danielle Kurtzleben formerly worked for the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.