Data Show Trump Is Right About Mail Bomber Coverage

Data Show Trump Is Right About Mail Bomber Coverage
Daniel Pontet via AP
Data Show Trump Is Right About Mail Bomber Coverage
Daniel Pontet via AP
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President Trump argued Monday night that media coverage of mail bomber Cesar Sayoc was biased when compared with how news outlets treated James T. Hodgkinson’s shooting of Republicans practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game last year. According to the president, Sayoc’s admiration of Trump was heavily emphasized, whereas the coverage of Hodgkinson barely focused on his loyalty to Bernie Sanders. Some media outlets were quick to dismiss Trump’s assertion, but he raises an interesting question: Do the data show any validity to the president’s concerns?

On June 14, 2017 Hodgkinson opened fire on a GOP baseball practice, wounding several people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The identity of the shooter and the fact that he volunteered for Sanders’ presidential campaign was known within hours. Early headlines, including at CNN, clearly pointed out the connection.

However, coverage quickly dropped the association with Sanders, with a Politico article three weeks later referring to the shooter merely as “James Hodgkinson of Illinois.”

In contrast, one of the most striking elements of coverage of last week’s mail bombing campaign was how blame was almost immediately assigned to Trump. Long before even the most basic information was known about the suspect, media personalities and their guests had largely pinned responsibility on the president. As Philippe Reines later put it on MSNBC, “We didn’t know the name of the bomber but we know who to blame.”

The timeline below overlays coverage of the first nine days of coverage after both events, showing the percentage of daily English language online news coverage of the event that mentioned Sanders or Trump, as monitored by the GDELT Project

In blue is the 2017 shooting. Day 0 represents the date it took place, June 14. The shooter’s affiliation with Sen. Sanders reached a peak of 31 percent of coverage the following day, then rapidly dissipated as the media largely dropped mentions of Hodgkinson’s political affiliation. 

In contrast, in orange is last week’s mail bombing campaign, with Day 0 being Oct. 22, when the first bomb (sent to George Soros) was discovered. By Oct. 25, the day before any information was known about the bomber’s identity, nearly 70 percent of coverage of the bombs mentioned Trump. By Sunday, nearly 80 percent of coverage associated the bomber with Trump.

In the end, while the president wasn’t entirely correct in claiming that the media didn’t associate the 2017 shooting with Sanders, his concerns about a media double standard are borne out. When a Sanders supporter and campaign volunteer opened fire on GOP members, the media quickly stopped mentioning the connection. Yet days before anything was known about last week’s bomber, the media had settled on Trump as the cause. Instead of reflexively dismissing any questions about bias, a bit of self-reflection on how the media covers the presidency in our increasingly divided world might be more productive.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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