How Much Attention Is Collusion Really Getting?
With the political discourse this week once again turning to Russia, it is worth looking back at NBC’s report last month that the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee had not discovered any direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Despite the report’s significance, it generated little attention, prompting allegations in some quarters of media bias. Yet, looking a bit closer, we find that the committee has actually garnered little media attention for the past two years and that coverage of collusion has remained fairly steady since 2017.
The timeline below shows the percentage of worldwide online news coverage monitored by the GDELT Project since Jan. 1, 2017 (the start of the data) that contained the phrase “Senate Intelligence Committee.”
The majority of recent coverage of the committee came from its May and June 2017 hearings that featured public testimony of high ranking officials including then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
After this initial burst of coverage, there has been only sporadic interest from the press, such as when the committee concluded that Russia worked to influence the 2016 election in President Trump’s favor. A burst in September involved highly anticipated testimony from Twitter and Facebook executives. Michael Cohen’s much publicized testimony this week before the House Oversight Committee and his closed-door testimony before the Senate panel garnered the most media attention on the intelligence committee since last September.
Thus, while it is true that NBC’s report received little attention, the reason has less to do with media bias and more to do with the simple fact that the committee as a whole has received little media attention.
What about the broader topic of collusion?
The timeline below uses data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive to show the weekly percentage of airtime on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from January 2016 to February 2019 that mentioned “collusion” or “colluding” within 15 seconds of “Trump.”
Overall, the three channels have paid relatively similar amounts of attention to the topic, with CNN and MSNBC both spending around 0.12 percent of their airtime on it and Fox News spending around 0.14 percent of its airtime.
Since rocketing into the public discourse in spring 2017, “collusion” has ebbed and flowed in media attention but does not appear to be increasing or decreasing overall.
Combining all three channels together and comparing them against U.S. Google searches for “Trump collusion” over the same time period, the timeline below shows that media attention and search interest are highly correlated. (To compare both on the same timeline given their different scales, the graph uses “Z-Scores,” which report standard deviations from the mean.)
While media attention likely helps drive search interest in collusion claims, it is clear that the media are not systematically over-reporting on collusion compared with the public’s interest in the topic.
Putting this all together, it is true that NBC’s report on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s failure to find Russian collusion by the Trump campaign did not receive significant media attention. However, this appears reflective of the media’s lackluster interest in the committee as a whole. In terms of collusion in general, media coverage is not systematically increasing or decreasing and appears to be in lockstep with public interest on the topic. In the end, it seems “collusion” has become just more background noise to the chaotic and loud political landscape of the Trump era.