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Oct. 2, 2017, 12:03 p.m.

Pew’s analysis of early Trump coverage: plenty of polarization, and a focus on personality over policy

Stories from news sources whose audiences lean right were five times as likely to have a positive assessment of the administration’s performance than those with left-leaning or mixed audiences.

So how is the Trump administration doing its job these days? Your answer might depend a lot on what news outlets you’re watching or reading.

The Pew Research Center released a report this afternoon detailing some overall trends in how news outlets covered the early days of the new administration, with a particular focus on how that coverage differed depending on the political leanings of outlets’ audiences. (The political leanings of a publisher’s audiences is, of course, an imperfect substitute for the political leanings of its journalism. But you’d expect some correlation.)

One standout among its many notable findings: Stories from news sources whose audiences lean right were five times as likely to have a positive assessment of the Trump administration’s performance than organizations with left-leaning or more mixed audiences. (Though none of them were particularly positive, at 31 percent, 5 percent, and 6 percent, respectively.)

Pew found similar divides when it came to the diversity of voices cited in stories by news organizations across the political spectrum. 70 percent of organizations with left-leaning audiences cited at least two sources (such as a member of the administration, an outside expert, or polls) compared to 44 percent of articles written by organizations with right-leaning readers and 62 percent from organizations with mixed readerships. Outlets with right-leaning audiences refuted statements from the Trump administration in only 2 percent of stories, compared to 10 percent and 15 percent of stories from mixed and left-leaning news outlets, respectively.

Across all news outlets overall, Pew found that stories were four times as likely to have a negative assessment of the Trump administration’s actions than a positive one (44 percent vs. 11 percent, respectively). This is similar to findings from the Shorenstein Center, which found in May that 80 percent of Trump’s media coverage was negative during the administration’s first 100 days.

While the story about polarization and news consumption has been framed around people on the left and the right each living in their own news bubbles, Pew’s research lends itself to a different conclusion: Left-leaning news organizations are actually far closer to the center than those organizations that appeal to those on the right. Polarization is not equal on both sides.

Pew’s study analyzed 3,000 stories across 24 outlets (including digital and broadcast media) during the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Stories were coded for subject, framing, and the types of sources they cited. To calculate whether a story had a positive or negative assessment of the Trump administration,  Pew categorized story statements made by reporters themselves or their sources. Stories that had twice as many positive statements as negative ones were considered to have a positive statement, and vice versa for negative ones.  Pew also grouped news outlets by the ideological profiles of their audiences, which you can see below.

While there are some clear differences in how news organizations across the political spectrum covered the first 100 days of the Trump administration, one trait shared across the board is the tendency to frame coverage around the character and leadership of Donald Trump, rather than his core ideology or policies. Over 70 percent of the stories Pew analyzed framed stories this way, compared to 26 percent of stories that focused on the policy agenda.

Overall, 17 percent of stories were about the president’s political skills, compared to 14 percent that focused on immigration, and 13 percent that focused on Trump’s appointments and nominations. Five topics accounted for 66 percent of all overage in the Trump administration’s early days.

These are sobering findings, considering that one of the most common criticisms of election coverage last year was that it centered far more on personality than policy. The share of policy-focused stories is significantly lower than during the early days of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, where 58 percent, 65 percent, and 50 percent, respectively, of stories focused on policy rather than personality.

Photo of Trump in February by Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 2, 2017, 12:03 p.m.
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