The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s media coverage has been 4-to-1 negative — but that isn’t really the point

President Trump meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Coming soon to a President Trump tweet near you: A new Harvard University study suggests 80 percent of the positive or negative coverage of him was negative in his first 100 days. That's an apparent 4-to-1 imbalance that is sure to make Trump supporters scream “FAKE NEWS!”

And that will miss the point entirely.

To be clear, I think the Shorenstein Center study is well worth doing, and I'm glad to have the data, which is much more nuanced than the one statistic above that will get all the play. I also think members of the media need to be constantly aware that they overwhelmingly hail from the coasts, and are more formally educated and tend to lean leftward more than your average American voter. The best journalism is the kind that can empathize with its subjects, and Trump's base is decidedly dissimilar to where most major-media journalists come from; that's just a fact.

But looking at the volume of positive and negative coverage of Trump in the absence of other data and considerations is ripe to create a faulty impression that the media is out to get Trump. And I think some other data points from the study drive home the fact that much of this is Trump's own doing.

First, here's a chart showing how positive-vs.-negative coverage of Trump has compared to the last three presidents.

It's important to note that caption: “Percentages exclude news reports that were neutral in tone, which accounted for about a third of the reports.” So it's not quite true that 80 percent of all Trump coverage is negative — just that 80 percent of coverage that tilts positive or negative is negative.

At the beginning of his speech to the 2017 CPAC, Feb. 24, President Trump slammed "fake news" organizations, saying the media should be required to name sources (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

That aside, what jumps out at the top is the comparison between Trump and Barack Obama. Trump has gotten about twice as much negative media coverage, as a portion of all coverage. And a clear majority of Obama's positive or negative coverage was positive in his first 100 days.

But look a little further down the chart, and you'll see that positive coverage in the first 100 days is not a given, even for a Democrat. Before Obama, there was no real honeymoon for George W. Bush or even the Democrat who preceded him, Bill Clinton. Fully 60 percent of Clinton's early coverage was negative — less than Trump, yes, but still very strongly negative from the “liberal media.”

And there was a reason for that: Clinton was struggling. He hadn't passed any signature legislation and had failed to deliver on the promise of a young, pragmatic Southern Democrat. Seven in 10 voters thought the country was headed in the wrong direction — a number that was on the rise. The economy was stuck in a rut. Just 43 percent of Americans had voted for him in a three-way race, and he hadn't accomplished much of anything to win over the other 57 percent. His party would later go on to get destroyed in the 1994 midterm election.

In short, there just wasn't much positive to focus on.

Such is the case with Trump. There haven't been many big successes to speak of in his first 100 days, and from there, his penchant for controversy and the objective disorder in his administration tend to more than fill the vacuum.

Notably, Harvard defines negative coverage as “stories where the actor is criticized directly” and “stories where an event, trend, or development reflects unfavorably on the actor.” When you do controversial things — which polls show a huge amount of things Trump does are — you get criticized by certain people. And when you promise to accomplish amazing things and the results contradict all that you promised, it's difficult to cover that as a win.

Trump could offset that if he were succeeding legislatively, but none of the pieces of major legislation he has promised have passed, and his biggest executive actions have been highly controversial and, in three cases, been halted by the courts.

About the one thing that could change the narrative is an increasingly robust economy. And coverage of that issue has indeed been more positive than just about anything else, as the chart below shows. But all the other drama Trump has created for himself and his haphazard manner of governance has a tendency to eclipse even the good news.

Another bright spot for Trump has been Syria. If there's one issue that got strongly positive coverage, it was his decision to strike back at the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons on its own people.

And polls showed the American people approved, too. So you do something popular, and the coverage is more positive, it seems.

But here's the last chart that I think really drives it home. If there was one outlet you'd expect might be positive about Trump, it would be Fox News. The conservative-leaning cable network created a cottage industry of skeptical coverage of Obama the last eight years, and it's certainly been less tough on Trump than the others.

Yet if you look at its positive-vs.-negative coverage, according to the Harvard study, a majority — 52 percent — has been negative.

It's fair to point to specific stories and narratives in the media that aren't fair to Trump. We should all be constantly asking ourselves these questions. But the fact that coverage of Trump isn't positive-leaning even on Fox pretty much says it all.