Measuring the Media's Obsession With Trump

Measuring the Media's Obsession With Trump
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Measuring the Media's Obsession With Trump
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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Since he rode down the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015, Donald Trump has loomed large over the media landscape. From the mail bomber to the Khashoggi slaying to Bush 41’s death, news outlets have organized their stories to emphasize Trump, while often undermining his legitimacy. In doing so, the press has devoted so much attention to him that he has in some ways helped revive American journalism. It turns out that the media’s obsession with the president is greater than one might imagine.

The timeline below shows the total percentage of airtime (as measured in 15-second intervals) of the combined CNN, MSNBC and Fox News daily coverage from June 2009 (the starting point of the data) to present that mentioned “Trump” or “Obama” (using data from the GDELT Project’s processing of the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive). 

Trump’s first major bump came in spring 2011 when he publicly toyed with the idea of running for president. The mere idea of Donald Trump in the Oval Office was enough to propel news interest in him to levels equal to those of then-President Obama. Bumps in December 2011 and May 2012 similarly reflected a media obsessed with Trump’s rising political clout. 

Yet, his meteoric rise to the stratosphere came about almost overnight, when he announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015. In the weeks after his announcement, the three television channels paid more attention to him than they did Obama’s re-election race in all of 2012.

In the three years since, coverage of Trump fell substantively only once, in November 2015, before Trump reignited interest with his controversial “Muslim ban.” Within days he was a media sensation again.

In the lead-up to the November 2016 election, Trump’s media coverage was more than double that of Obama’s re-election campaign coverage. After his election, coverage dropped to nearly half its peak levels. This mirrors the drop Obama experienced after his re-election, as the press returned from its campaign footing.

While Obama typically hovered around 3 percent to 5 percent airtime over most of his presidency, Trump’s steady state appears to be around 13 percent-17 percent. In total from June 2009 to January 20, 2017, Obama averaged around 4.9 percent of the combined daily airtime of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. From June 16, 2015 to present, Trump has averaged 15 percent, three times as much.

Looking by station, CNN spent 4.3 times more airtime on Trump than Obama, MSNBC 2.4 times and Fox News 3.1 times.

The bigger question is whether all of this media attention mirrors public interest. The timeline below shows the relative volume of U.S.-based Google searches for Trump (red) and Obama (blue). Google does not report the actual number of searches, instead treating the month with the highest number of searches as 100 percent and reporting the other months as percentages of that peak.

In terms of U.S.-based Google searches, Trump’s November 2016 peak was three times that of Obama’s November 2012 re-election and twice that of Obama’s first election.

Both presidents experienced substantial declines in search interest over their first year, with Obama dropping 77 percent and Trump 69 percent. As a percentage decrease, Trump has not held the public interest any better than Obama, but due to overall greater interest in his presidency, he still maintains a considerable lead in total search volume.

Putting this all together, the graphs above make the media’s obsession with Trump starkly clear, yet they also show that all of this attention mirrors (or drives) actual interest from the public. In the end, for media outlets that spend so much of their time attacking Trump, it is clear that they simply cannot live without him.

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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