How Media Treated the State of the Union Address

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After being delayed by the political brinkmanship of the government shutdown, President Trump’s State of the Union address finally happened Tuesday night. How did the media react to this year’s event compared to last year?

Using data from the GDELT Project, global online news coverage mentioning “State of the Union” or “SOTU” and “Trump” was examined across the project’s 65 monitored languages from the start of Tuesday through noon on Wednesday.

Predictably, given its role in the most recent government shutdown, around 46 percent of coverage of the SOTU mentioned the word “wall.” In contrast, just 20 percent of articles did so during the same day-and-a-half period surrounding last year’s address.

The words “border” and “borders” were also popular, mentioned in around half of all SOTU coverage during and after the speech. Last year they accounted for just 35 percent of articles during the SOTU and quickly fell afterward to just 15 percent.

Strangely, while borders and walls dominated 2019 press coverage, the word “immigration” was mentioned in only 40 percent of coverage this year and remained relatively constant. In contrast, last year it was mentioned in nearly half of all coverage published during the SOTU and was a fixture in more than 30 percent of coverage in the hours after.

It seems last year was about immigration, and this year was about physical barriers to halt it.

The shutdown itself was mentioned by 60 percent of coverage in the hours leading up to the SOTU, dropping to around 45 percent during the speech and falling to 30 percent by noon the following day. In comparison, just 15 percent of SOTU coverage during the 2018 event mentioned the shutdown that had immediately preceded it, falling to just 7 percent of SOTU coverage after.

The rapid fall in mentions of the shutdown suggests that Trump’s speech succeeded in shifting the media narrative toward his administration’s priority issues.

The president scored another rare victory in that 20 percent of coverage mentioned the word “bipartisan” compared with just 13 percent last year. The word “cooperation” was mentioned in 10 percent of articles, compared with just 2.5 percent last year. In contrast, the word “divisive” appeared in only 3 percent of coverage compared with 5 percent last year.

The sharp political divide was still on display with 35 percent of coverage during the SOTU mentioning the word “partisan,” which fell to 20 percent afterward, compared with just 7.5 percent both during and after the SOTU last year.

The “economy” and “economic” were about on par with last year, accounting for half of coverage during the speech and falling to around 30 percent after it. Last year those words were mentioned by 60 percent of articles during and 50 percent after.

It seems this year’s economic language of choice was a bit more specific. Rather than vague mentions of the economy, the more specific words “jobs” and “employment” were mentioned in 40 percent of coverage during the speech and 30 percent afterward. Last year they received roughly half as many mentions: 20 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

Despite Trump’s post-shutdown focus on “infrastructure,” it was only mentioned in around 20 percent of coverage during and after the SOTU, while last year it was mentioned in 30 percent of the coverage during the address and 20 percent afterward.

Socialism was the big economic winner this year, with “socialism” or “socialist” or “socialists” accounting for 15 percent of coverage, compared with less than 1 percent last year. In testament to her outsized media influence, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accounted for a whopping 7 percent of SOTU media coverage this year.

Mentions of “Afghanistan” or “Syria” or “Syrian” reached around a quarter of coverage during the speech and 17 percent afterward, compared with just 15 percent during and 5 percent after last year.

The SOTU appears to have shifted conversation away from the Mueller investigation, with “Mueller” or “investigate” or “investigation” averaging around a quarter of coverage this year compared with nearly a third last year.

Fact checks are growing more prominent in SOTU news, with the phrases “fact check” or “fact checking” or “fact checks” averaging around 10 percent of coverage during the speech and 7 percent after. Last year the numbers were just 5 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. This suggests that the media may be increasingly adopting fact-checking as part of their approach to covering the Trump presidency.

Trump’s nod to the record number of women in Congress and the ocean of “suffragette white” in the audience made “women” one of the key words of the evening, mentioned in 45 percent of coverage during the speech and around 20 percent after it, compared with around 20 percent overall last year.

Finally, this year’s Democratic rebuttal by Stacey Abrams was mentioned in around 20 percent of coverage. Last year’s rebuttal by Joe Kennedy III garnered a similar number -- around 15 percent. At least in the era of Trump, the SOTU rebuttal doesn’t seem to be galvanizing the press.

Putting this all together, it seems Trump’s State of the Union address was successful, at least momentarily, in pivoting the media conversation from investigations and the shutdown and toward the domestic issues most important to the administration. It remains to be seen for how long.

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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