By: Robert Lichter, Stephen Farnsworth, and Roland Schatz
Editors Note: We are two months into the Trump presidency and we thought that perhaps the press would find a way to be more balanced and let their hostility go. Alas, that has not been the case. Not since Nixon has the media relished being so openly partisan and antagonistic to the President. It is affecting honest coverage. Following, data scientists look at the press coverage of the Wall Street Journal in particular. Interestingly, the WSJ is perceived as being positive toward President Trump. Read on to see what the data shows.
It’s not the best of times at the Wall Street Journal. Not long after a painful overhaul that brought layoffs and buyouts, Editor in Chief Gerard Baker recently faced a rebellion by his own staffers, who feared that the paper was going soft in its coverage of President Trump. Trump’s self-declared war on the media has pushed journalists everywhere to worry that joining the battle will cost them their objectivity, while adhering to that standard will let the President roll right over them.
At the Journal this dilemma has been exacerbated by fears that the editorial section’s famed conservatism was leaching into the news coverage. In addition, many news staffers reject Baker’s position that the press should be leery of using the term “lie” to describe every falsehood uttered by Trump, because the term “implies a deliberate intent to mislead,” The subtext of this dispute is that Baker is himself a convert to conservatism, and the paper’s parent company is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. By contrast, a widely cited UCLA study rated the Journal’s news coverage as well left of center.
Despite the Journal’s public identity crisis, however, a new study suggests that it actually hasn’t given the new President much of a honeymoon. In fact, according to a content analysis of 413 news reports conducted by Media Tenor, an international media research firm, the Journal’s coverage of the 45th president during his first four weeks in office were notably more negative than positive. Of all the reports published in the paper’s news sections between January 20 and February 17, 2017, a total of 29 percent were negative, only 12 percent were positive and the rest were neutral.
Of Trump’s first four weeks in office, only the first, starting with Inauguration Day, contained more positive than negative news. The second and third weeks of his presidency contained the most critical news coverage so far, at a time when the administration endured a series of legal defeats and public protests regarding its plans to tighten immigration rules. Coverage remained negative, though less so, during Trump’s fourth week in office, as several of his cabinet secretaries received Senate confirmation.
To be sure, the Journal’s coverage of Trump has not always been so negative. Media Tenor’s previous studies have found that, over the past year, the coverage has vacillated between very positive periods, such as last winter, when he started winning Republican nomination contests, and very negative periods, as in August and September, when Trump’s controversial behavior and low poll numbers seemed to be undercutting his campaign. In other words, it seems to at least roughly follow the flow of events.
Since Inauguration Day, however, Trump’s coverage has been downbeat nearly across the board. Among policy issues, immigration dominated the news coverage of the new president during the administration’s first four weeks, and assessments in the Journal were more negative than positive by a 12-to-1 margin. Adverse court rulings, large public protests at many airports, and suggestions of disarray among policy makers on the Trump team also led to highly critical reports. Foreign policy reports were also mainly critical, though the margin was less than 2-to-1 negative. News reports on Trump’s trade policies were a rare policy bright spot, where positive assessments outnumbered negative ones by roughly a 3-to-1 margin.
Thus, the evidence mainly supports Gerard Baker’s retort to his critics that anyone claiming the Journal has gone soft on Trump is peddling “fake news.” However, assessments of media coverage are always relative. For example, according to ongoing Media Tenor studies, since the Inauguration the evening newscasts of CBS and NBC together aired reports that were an eye-popping three percent positive, 43 percent negative, and 54 percent neutral. When compared to this avalanche of critical coverage, the Journal’s less negative take on Trump must look positively glowing to Baker’s critics. But whether the broadcast networks’ far more negative coverage should be seen as appropriate or adversarial will, as always, depend on the eye of the beholder.
Authors: Roland Schatz, S. Robert Lichter, and Stephen J. Farnsworth
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