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Study: Lots of negative press for Trump

May 25, 2017

There are few positive news reports about Donald Trump in the US. The coverage of German public broadcaster ARD is even harsher, according to a new Harvard study. But experts are criticizing the report's methodology.

USA Merkel und Trump - PK
Image: picture-alliance/P. Martinez Monsivais

In case you haven't noticed yet, media coverage of Donald Trump hasn't exactly been positive. Whether it's because of his verbal attacks on journalists or contentious policy decisions such as the Muslim travel ban and the repeal of Obamacare, the US president has not been popular with media outlets across the US and Europe.

A new study by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has now put it in writing: In Trump's first 100 days in office, press outlets were far from friendly.

"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," Thomas E. Patterson wrote in his study "News Coverage of Donald Trump's First 100 Days."

Especially unpopular abroad

For the study, Patterson analyzed content from three US daily newspapers (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post), the flagship news programs on four US TV networks (CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC) and three European media outlets (Britain's public broadcaster the BBC, newspaper the Financial Times, and Germany's public broadcaster ARD).

"The president’s role as a global leader, and Trump’s pledge to redefine that role, prompted the inclusion of European news in the study," Patterson wrote.

From what it looks like in the study, Trump has a tough path ahead of him if he wants to become a popular global leader. Especially in Germany, his numbers are abysmal when it comes to positive media coverage.

Infografik Pressestimmen Trump Vergleich ENG

During Trump's first 100 days in office, 98 percent of ARD's news coverage that assigned value to a story about him was negative. It's important to note, however, that this does not mean that ARD journalists criticized Trump. Negative coverage includes stories in which the president was criticized by a third person, and reports on facts and events that simply reflected negatively on Trump.

"The fact that Donald Trump is mostly getting negative coverage isn't because of the journalists," Christian Stöcker, media researcher and head of the digital communications program at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, told DW. "It's because of Donald Trump and his government."

Of the Financial Times and BBC coverage that assigned value to the US president, 84 percent and 74 percent were negative, respectively. 

Neutral coverage ignored

US media weren't quite as hard on their president, but more than half of their value-assigning coverage was still negative. CNN and NBC were almost as negative as Germany's ARD, with 93 percent negative coverage. On the other end of the spectrum are the Wall Street Journal with 70 percent of its Trump coverage being negative and conservative TV network Fox, with just 52 percent negative coverage.

It's important to note, however, that Patterson ignored one crucial factor when coming up with these numbers. He excluded stories that skewed neither positively nor negatively. Even though neutral reports accounted for about a third of all media outlets' Trump coverage, they were not included in the study's results at all.

Christian Stöcker, Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften Hamburg
Stöcker: The study has to be taken with a grain of saltImage: Sebastian Isacu

"This methodology is peculiar," Stöcker said. "I'm not sure that a quantitative analysis that leaves out one of three categories is the perfect method to reflect what's really going on."

On the blog "uebermedien" ("about media"), journalist Stefan Niggemeier also criticized the study's methodology.

"By excluding neutral coverage… the picture distorts the actual results," Niggemeier wrote.

'New standard for negativity'

Disregarding neutral reports, the average Trump coverage by the seven US media outlets included in the study is far more negative than positive. The tone was positive in only 20 percent of stories about the president's first 100 days. Those are poor numbers, including when compared to previous presidents.

Obama is the only recent president with more positive than negative coverage in his first term's first 100 days.

Infografik Pressestimmen US-Präsidenten Vergleich ENG


"Journalists’ incentives, everything from getting their stories on the air to acquiring a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter, encourage journalists to focus on what’s wrong with politicians rather than what’s right," Patterson wrote.

But Trump's 80 percent negative coverage still stands out - and sets "a new standard for negativity."

Trump, Trump, Trump

If there is one positive way for the president to look at the Shorenstein Center study, it would be the sheer amount of coverage he received in his first 100 days in office. Patterson calls the phenomenon "All Trump, all the time."

On the US TV networks included in the study, Trump was the topic of 41 percent of all news stories - that's roughly three times more than other presidents before him have been afforded. If Trump believes in the saying "All publicity is good publicity," then that's at least one piece of good news.

Trump attacks media at press conference

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker