Media’s Trump Coverage Overly Positive? Harvard Study Has Answers

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CAMBRIDGE — Researchers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government recently completed an exhaustive study analyzing the media’s coverage of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, and the findings officially confirm what has long been observed regarding the press’s handling of the former real estate magnate.

“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,” the study, orchestrated by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, concluded.

Shorenstein Center researchers analyzed news reports in the print editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post — along with the main newscasts of CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC.

The study also looked at three European news outlets — the Financial Times in Great Britain, the BBC, and Germany’s ARD — and found that “European reporters were more likely than American journalists to directly question Trump’s fitness for office.”

The study’s final report features several charts that break down each of the named outlets’ coverage of Trump, including one that compares the varying tones of coverage:


Another chart compares the media’s current treatment of Trump versus its treatment of previous incoming presidents:

Thomas E. Patterson, a Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, author of the study’s final report, notes that while “Trump’s ongoing feud with the media is not the first time a president has felt wronged by the press,” the press’s treatment of him “during his first 100 days set a new standard for negativity.”

Patterson, however, is not keen on connecting any of the data to the media’s perceived liberal bias. Instead, he credits the negativity surrounding coverage of all things Trump to journalists’ “real bias … a preference for the negative,” noting that “news reporting turned sour during the Vietnam and Watergate era and has stayed that way.”

Patterson later points out that while Barack Obama was the only president of the last four to receive favorable coverage during his administration’s first 100 days, the trend flipped during his second 100 days, as coverage of him was 57 percent negative compared to 43 percent positive.

For Trump, however, media coverage of his first 100 days has been 80 percent negative compared to 20 percent positive.

“Trump’s coverage was unsparing,” Patterson writes. “In no week did the coverage drop below 70 percent negative and it reached 90 percent negative at its peak.”

A blip on the radar, however, was the Trump administration’s decision to stage an airstrike on a Syrian airfield in early April following the regime of President Bashar al-Assad’s deploying of nerve gases upon his own civilians.

Coverage of Trump during the week of the airstrikes, according to the study, held firm at 70 percent negative, before climbing back up the negativity scale again.

Fox News, however, remained one outlet where coverage of Trump was different. The study determined that Fox’s coverage of him was 52 percent negative and 48 percent positive.

Lastly, Patterson concludes that “Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days was negative even by the standards of today’s hyper-critical press.”

The results, however, do not surprise Patterson, as he notes that Trump’s first 100 days “have been marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever.”

The relentlessly negative coverage, according to Patterson, does result in a large swath of the American public simply tuning out the press.

“The nation’s watchdog has lost much of its bite and won’t regain it until the public perceives it as an impartial broker, applying the same reporting standards to both parties,” Patterson writes. “The news media’s exemplary coverage of Trump’s cruise missile strike on Syria illustrates the type of even-handedness that needs to be constantly and rigorously applied.”