Why focus on these outlets? Although the audience for the evening national newscasts has shrunk, they consistently draw well over 20 million viewers and shape the political discourse on social media, local television news and elsewhere. Television news remains a highly important source of information among the citizens most likely to vote. Fox News has an especially devoted following among conservatives.
Here is what this analysis found. Only 3 percent of the reports about Trump that aired on NBC and CBS were positive, while 43 percent were negative and 54 percent were neutral.
On “Special Report,” the Fox News program that most closely resembles the evening network news, 25 percent of the reports about Trump were negative, compared with 12 percent positive and the remainder neutral. In other words, even the conservative-leaning Fox News featured twice as much bad press as good press.
The networks differed in their emphases. Fox News focused on personnel decisions in the new White House, and coverage of that issue area was more positive than negative by a ratio of 2 to 1. Another bright spot for Trump was Fox’s coverage of economic news: There was mostly positive coverage of the new president’s initiatives that are intended to strengthen the international competitiveness of U.S. business.
CBS and NBC focused more on Trump’s immigration policy and whether he was respecting U.S. constitutional norms such as separation of powers. Most of these news reports were far more negative than positive. But CBS and NBC coverage of Trump’s international diplomacy was more positive than negative, but there were fewer stories on that topic than on others.
Of course, the news media’s role as a monitor of government usually leads to at least some negative news. But the negative coverage of Trump seems unusual. Our previous research in “The Global President” found that President Barack Obama received much less negative coverage than Trump has received at the start of their respective presidencies.
One reason may be Trump’s own attitude toward the media. Trump has disparaged the media as “the opposition party” and an “enemy of the American people,” with the exception of outlets like Breitbart and Fox News. This puts journalists in a difficult position. If they challenge Trump at every turn, they may appear to be the opposition he claims they are. But if they conduct business as usual, this could simply let Trump be Trump at their expense.
If the first month of Trump’s time in the White House is any indicator, Trump should expect more challenges as he struggles to control the narrative of his unconventional presidency.
Stephen J. Farnsworth is a professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington, S. Robert Lichter is a professor of communication at George Mason University, and Roland Schatz is president of Media Tenor Ltd. They are co-authors of “The Global President: International Media and the U.S. Government,” published by Rowman & Littlefield.