By Kent R. Kroeger (December 21, 2020)
Few conversation starters can ruin an otherwise pleasant dinner party (or prevent you from being invited to future ones) than asking: Is the news media biased?
If you ask a Democrat, they will tell you the Fox News Channel is the problem (“They started it!” as if explaining to an elementary school teacher who threw the first punch during a playground fight). Ask a Republican and they will say Fox News is just the natural reaction to the long-standing, pervasive liberal bias of the mainstream media.
This past presidential election has poured gasoline on the two arguments.
In late October, the Media Research Council (MRC), a conservative media watchdog group, released research showing that, between July 29 and October 20, 92 percent of evaluative statements about President Trump by the Big Three evening newscasts (ABC, CBS, NBC) were negative, compared to only 34 percent for Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Apart from a few conservative-leaning news outlets, such as the Fox News Channel and The Wall Street Journal, the MRC release was ignored.
When I shared the MRC research with my wife, her reaction was probably representative of many Democrats and media members: “Why wasn’t their coverage 100 percent negative towards Trump?”
The MRC doesn’t need me to defend their research methods, except I will point out that how they measure television news tone has a long history within media research, dating back to groundbreaking research by Michael J. Robinson and Margaret A. Sheehan, summarized in their 1981 book, “Over the Wire and on TV: CBS and UPI in Campaign ‘80.”
Here is MRC’s description of their news tone measurement method:
“MRC analysts reviewed every mention of President Trump and former Vice President Biden from July 29 through October 20, 2020, including weekends, on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. To determine the spin of news coverage, our analysts tallied all explicitly evaluative statements about Trump or Biden from either reporters, anchors or non-partisan sources such as experts or voters. Evaluations from partisan sources, as well as neutral statements, were not included.
As we did in 2016, we also separated personal evaluations of each candidate from statements about their prospects in the campaign horse race (i.e., standings in the polls, chances to win, etc.). While such comments can have an effect on voters (creating a bandwagon effect for those seen as winning, or demoralizing the supports of those portrayed as losing), they are not “good press” or “bad press” as understood by media scholars.”
Besides the MRC, there is another data resource on news coverage tone. It is called the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) Project and was inspired by the automated event-coding work of Georgetown University’s Kalev Leetaru and political scientist Philip Schrodt (formerly of Penn State University).
The GDELT Project is described as “an initiative to construct a catalog of human societal-scale behavior and beliefs across all countries of the world, connecting every person, organization, location, count, theme, news source, and event across the planet into a single massive network that captures what’s happening around the world, what its context is and who’s involved, and how the world is feeling about it, every single day.”
[For a description of the many datasets available through GDELT, you can go here.]
The GDELT Project’s goals are ambitious to say the least, but perhaps may shed some light on the tone of news coverage during this past presidential election.
It is worth a look-see.
A Comparison of US Online News Coverage of Biden and Trump
For the following analysis, I queried GDELT’s Global Online News Coverage database, filtering it down to US-only daily news articles that mention either Joe Biden or Donald Trump (but not both) from January 15, 2017 to November 22, 2020.
[The APIs used to query the GDELT database are available in this article’s appendix.]
Resulting from these queries were two metrics for each candidate: The first was the daily volume of online news coverage (measured as the percent of monitored articles), and the second was the average daily tone of online news coverage.
The second metric deserves some additional explanation.
GDELT uses Google’s Natural Language API to inspect a given text and identify the prevailing emotional opinion within the text, especially to determine a writer’s attitude as positive, negative or neutral. A text with a summary score over zero indicates that it was positive in overall tone. The higher a score, the more positive the text’s tone. Similarly, negative values indicate an overall negative tone. Values near zero indicate a text that is either neutral (i.e., no clear tone) or contains mixed tones (i.e., both positive and negative emotions).
For each news article, tone is calculated at the level of the entire article, not the tone of the sentence(s) mentioning Biden or Trump, so a negative article with a positive mention of Biden or Trump will still be scored negative. Finally, online news articles that mentioned both Biden and Trump were excluded from the analysis (83% of Biden articles mentioned both candidates, while only 9% of Trump articles did). In total, 4,593 online news articles were analyzed.
The resulting time-series data set contained five variables: (1) Date, (2) Daily Volume of Biden-focused Online News Coverage, (3) Average Daily Tone of Biden-focused Online News Coverage, (4) Daily Volume of Trump-focused Online News Coverage, and (5) Average Daily Tone of Trump-focused Online News Coverage.
From this data, I computed Biden’s net advantage in online news coverage tone by multiplying, for each candidate, the day’s news volume by the average news coverage tone. Trump’s volume-weighted news coverage tone was then subtracted from Biden’s.
Figure 1 (below) shows Biden’s net advantage in online news coverage tone from January 15, 2017 (near the beginning of Trump’s presidential term) to November 22, 2020.
Figure 1: Biden’s Tone Advantage over Trump in US Online News Coverage
According to the GDELT data, the tone of Biden-focused US online news coverage was far more positive than Trump-focused news coverage. In fact, online news coverage never favored Trump — not for one single day!
While there has been significant variation in Biden’s tone advantage since 2017— most notably since August 2020 when Biden has seen his tone index advantage decrease from 8.9 to 1.3 by late November 2020 — it is remarkable that even when the U.S. economy was booming in late 2019, well before the the coronavirus pandemic had impacted the US, Biden was enjoying a significant advantage in online news tone.
Supporting the validity of the GDELT tone data, variation in Biden’s tone advantage fluctuates predictably with known events that occurred during the 2020 campaign.
In a March 25, 2020, interview with Katie Halper, former Biden staff member Tara Reade alleged that Biden had pushed her against a wall, kissed her, put his hand under her skirt, penetrated her with his fingers, and asked, “Do you want to go somewhere else?”
Beyond this allegation, there is only circumstantial evidence supporting Reade’s charge against Biden. Still, the impact of this allegation manifests itself in how Biden’s tonality advantage varied over time.
On March 25, 2020, Biden enjoyed a 7.7 tonality advantage over Trump. That advantage, however, immediately fell in the weeks following Halper’s Reade interview, reaching a relative low of 5.4 on May 11th.
Soon after, Biden’s tonality advantage began to recover rapidly, likely due to two major news stories in May. The first, on May 8th, marked the release of U.S. unemployment data showing the highest unemployment rate (14.7%) since the Great Depression, mainly due to job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. These new economic numbers put the Trump administration in a clear defensive position, despite the fact that similar pandemic-fueled economic declines were occurring in almost every major economy in the world.
On May 25th, the second event — the death of George Floyd while being physically immobilized by a Minneapolis police officer — sparked a national outcry against police violence against African-Americans. Whether this outrage should have been directed at Trump (as it was by many news outlets) will be a judgment left to historians. What can be said is that Biden’s tone advantage over Trump trended upwards into the summer, reaching an 2020 peak of 9.0 on July 25th.
In the post-convention media environment, which included intermittent media coverage of the Hunter Biden controversy, Biden’s tone advantage declined for the remainder of the time covered in this analysis.
Admittedly, the GDELT data is imperfect in that it does not allow analysis at a sentence- or paragraph-level. Still, the finding in Figure 1 that Biden-focused news articles have been far more positive than Trump-focused news articles is consistent with the overall finding in the MRC tonal analysis of the 2020 presidential election.
Is this conclusive evidence of the news media’s anti-Trump bias? No. But it should inspire a further inquiry into this question, and to do that will require some methodological finesse. That is, it will require far more than just measuring the tone of news coverage.
How would we know if the news coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign was biased?
In a country where President Trump’s approval rating has hovered between 40 and 46 percent through most of his presidency, the fact that — at a critical time in the election — the network TV news programs were over 90 percent negative towards Trump offers some face validity to the anti-Trump media bias argument.
But my wife’s gut reaction to the MRC research contains a profound point: What if Trump deserved the overwhelming negative coverage? After all, is it the job of the news media to reflect public opinion? To the contrary, by definition, an objective news media should be exclusively anchored to reality, not ofttimes fickle variations in public sentiment.
Subsequently, the central problem in measuring media bias is finding a measure of objective reality by which to assess a president’s performance. Most everything we hold a president accountable for — the economy, foreign policy, personal character, etc. — is subject to interpretations and opinions that are commonly filtered by the news media through layers of oversimplifications, distortions and other perceptual biases.
Perhaps we can use a set of proxy measures? The unemployment rate. Gross domestic product growth. Stock prices. A president’s likability score. But to what extent does a president have an impact on those metrics? Far less than we may want to believe.
And now add to the equation a global pandemic for which Trump’s culpability, though widely asserted in the national news media, is highly debatable but reckless to dismiss out-of-hand.
How can the U.S. news media possibly be equipped to judge a president’s performance by any objective, unbiased standard?
It isn’t. And, frankly, it is likely the average American doesn’t require news organizations to be so equipped. Despite survey evidence from Pew Research suggesting news consumers dislike partisanship in the news media — most likely an artifact of the social desirability bias commonly found in survey-based research — recent studies also show U.S. news consumers choose their preferred news outlets through partisan and ideological lenses.
According to political scientist Dr. Regina Lawrence, associate dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication and research director for the Agora Journalism Center, selection bias is consciously and unconsciously driving news consumers towards news outlets that share similar partisan and ideological points of view — and, in the process, increases our country’s political divide:
“Selective exposure is the tendency many of us have to seek out news sources that don’t fundamentally challenge what we believe about the world. We know there’s a relationship between selective exposure and the growing divide in political attitudes in this country. And that gap is clearly related to the rise of more partisan media sources.”
The implication of this dynamic on how journalists do their jobs is significant. There is little motivation across all levels of the news-gathering process — from the corporate board room down to the beat reporter — to put an absolute premium on covering news stories from an objective point of view.
Instead, journalists and media celebrities are motivated by the same psychological and economic forces as the rest of us: career advancement, prestige and money. And to succeed in the news business today, a journalist’s output must fit within the dominant (frequently partisan) narratives of his or her news organization.
In a trailblazing data-mining-based study by the Rand Corporation on how U.S. journalism has changed since the rise of cable news networks and social media, researchers found “U.S.-based journalism has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy.”
And the result of this shift? Viewership, newsroom investments and profits at the three major cable news networks have significantly increased in the past two decades, at the same time that news consumers have shifted their daily news sources away from traditional media (newspapers and TV network news) towards new media outlets (online publications, news aggregators [e.g., Drudge Report], blogs, and social media). In 2019, the major U.S. media companies — which include assets and revenue streams far beyond those generated from their news operations — had a total market capitalization exceeding $930 billion.
Why then should we be surprised that today’s broadcast and print journalists are not held to a high objectivity or accuracy standard? Their news organizations are prospering for other reasons.
During the peak of the Russiagate furor, as many journalists were hiding behind anonymous government sources, few journalists and producers at CNN, MSBNC, The New York Times or Washington Post openly challenged the basic assumptions of that conspiracy theory which asserted that Trump had colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election — a charge that, in the end, proved baseless.
Apart from ABC News chief investigative Brian Ross being disciplined for his false reporting regarding Trump campaign contacts with Russia, I cannot recall a single national news reporter being similarly disciplined for bad Russiagate reporting (and there was a lot of bad Russiagate reporting).
On the other side of the coin, there are certainly conservative news outlets where effusive Trump coverage is encouraged, but those cases are in the minority compared to the rest of the mainstream media (a term I despise as I believe the average national news outlet actively restricts the range of mainstream ideas presented to the news consuming public — and, furthermore, there is nothing ‘mainstream’ about the people who populate our national news outlets).
Americans mostly witness presidential campaigns through the media — which gives the media more power than they’ve earned
Being from Iowa, I’ve been spoiled by the number of times I’ve met presidential candidates in person. That, however, is not how most Americans experience a presidential election.
Americans generally experience presidential elections via the media, either through direct exposure or indirect exposure through friends, family and acquaintances; consequently, this potentially gives the news media tremendous influence over election outcomes.
According to Dr. Lawrence, the most significant way the news media impacts elections is through who and what they cover (and who and what they don’t cover). “The biggest thing that drives elections is simple name recognition.”
If journalists refuse to cover a candidate, their candidacy is typically toast. But that is far from the only way the news media can influence elections. How news organizations frame an election — which drives the dominant media narratives for that election — can have a significant impact.
The most common frame is that of the horse race in which the news media — often through polling and judging the size and enthusiasm of crowds —can, in effect, tell the voting public who is leading and who has the best chance of winning.
“We know from decades of research that the mainstream media tend to see elections through the prism of competition,” according to Lawrence. “Campaigns get covered a lot like sports events, with an emphasis on who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s up, who’s down, how they are moving ahead or behind in the polls.”
There are other narratives, however, that can be equally impactful — such as narratives centered on a candidate’s character (e.g., honesty, empathy) or intellectual capacity.
Was Al Gore as stiff and humorless as often portrayed in the 2000 campaign? Was George W. Bush as intellectually lazy or privileged as implied in much of the coverage from that same campaign?
Even journalists with good intentions can distort reality when motivated to fit their stories into these premeditated story lines.
More ominous, however, is that possibility that news organizations with strong biases against a particular candidate or political party, as they can manipulate their campaign coverage in such a way that even objective facts can be framed to systematically favor the voter impressions formed for one candidate over another.
Did that happen in the 2020 presidential election? My inclination is to say yes, but I go back to the original question posed in this essay: Did Donald Trump deserve the overwhelming negative coverage he received across large segments of the national news media?
Without clearly defining and validly measuring the objective, unbiased metrics by which to answer that question, there is no possible way to give a substantive response.
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Appendix: GDELT APIs Used in this Article
GDELT API for Biden:
GDELT API for Trump: