Negative coverage says more about media than Trump

Even though the results should surprise no one, a new Harvard University analysis of media coverage of the first 100 days of the Trump presidency is remarkable not only for the degree of negativity it documents but also for its frank assessment of why American journalism must improve for its own sake – and the country’s.

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media reviewed Trump-oriented stories carried by the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, Financial Times, the BBC and Germany’s ARD and concluded the coverage “set new standards for negativity,” with critical stories outnumbering positive ones by a whopping 80 percent to 20 percent.

What’s more, the study noted, “In no week did the coverage drop below 70 percent negative, and it reached 90 percent at its peak.” By comparison, coverage of President Obama’s first 100 days was nearly three times more positive than Trump’s.

To be sure, the Trump administration has made more than its share of missteps, and accurate coverage of negative events will inevitably be negative. But the researchers suggest the results may have at least as much to do with the preconceptions of journalists as they do with the performance of an admittedly unconventional president who has added “fake news” to the nation’s vocabulary and declared the mainstream media the “enemy of the people.”

If there was one issue that propelled Trump to victory it was his promise to protect the nation’s border, yet immigration received the most negative coverage of all, with 96 percent of all stories being critical. Health care was next, with 87 percent of stories critical, followed by “Russian and the election” (87 percent, despite no proof to date of collusion). Tellingly, 70 percent of stories about Trump’s “fitness for office” were negative, but the very preference for such stories – rare in previous administrations – reflects its own sort of bias.

Even in areas that would seem to play to Trump’s strengths, positive coverage was scarce. Stories on international trade were negative 84 percent of the time, along with defense (82 percent), terrorism (70 percent) and even the economy (54 percent).

Although the study acknowledges it’s “understandable why journalists report and respond” to Trump’s attacks on them, “at the same time (they) need to give Trump credit when his actions warrant it. The public’s low level of confidence in the press is the result of several factors,one of which is the belief that journalists are biased. That perception weakens the press’ watchdog role.”

That last sentence is crucial, because an honest and trusted press is critical to democracy. Reporters are supposed to be adversarial in the best sense of that word, holding people in power accountable for their actions. But without Americans’ trust, not even responsible journalism will promote good government because nobody will be paying attention.

Have we reached that tipping point? Here’s what the study concluded: “The nation’s watchdog has lost much of its bite and won’t regain it until the public perceives an impartial broker, applying the same standards to both parties … journalists would also do well to spend less time in Washington and more time in places where policy intersects with people’s lives. If they had done so during the campaign, they would not have missed the story that keyed Trump’s victory: the fading of the American dream for millions of ordinary people.”

Precisely. Hillary Clinton dismissed such people as “deplorables.” Others accused them of racism, sexism, xenophobia and a host of other dark motives invariably reported as negative by people who spend most of their lives within the Washington beltway. As CNN media reporter Dylan Byers put it over the weekend, too often the media “have not told the story of conservative Americans – disenfranchised Americans – who believe they are losing their country. The story we have been largely telling is a story that is more or less in step with the arc of history as defined by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”

You hardly need to feel “disenfranchised” to be conservative – that’s typical liberal elitism speaking – but Byers’ larger point is valid: The media overwhelmingly believe events must inexorably move in a progressive direction, and that any effort to change course amounts to “turning back the clock.” Until journalists understand and are willing to acknowledge that no movement has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue, they will be out of step, and dismissed by, millions of ordinary Americans who know better. <br>

<i> This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355. </i>