Trump's Economic Message Gets Scant Play on TV News

Trump's Economic Message Gets Scant Play on TV News
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File
Trump's Economic Message Gets Scant Play on TV News
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File
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President Trump made the economy one of the centerpieces of his 2016 campaign, but to what degree has the relatively strong economy received attention in the media and how is that changing as the economy slows?

The timeline below plots the percentage of airtime on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from July 2009 to present that mentioned either “economy” or “economics,” using the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project.

Click on the chart for a larger image.

The residual impact of the 2008 recession can be clearly seen, with mentions of the economy largely leveling off by mid-2013. During the 2009-2013 period, MSNBC look the lead among the three news channels, devoting 2.8% of its airtime to mentions of the economy, compared with 2.5% for Fox News and 2.1% for CNN.

Beginning with Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, Fox News began to cover the economy more often than the other two channels, mentioning it 1.6 times as frequently as either CNN or MSNBC through the end of last month. In August of this year, as warnings were sounded about the possibility of a recession, CNN and MSNBC briefly devoted more attention than Fox to the economy.

Economists have long used news coverage as a proxy for understanding public attention to economic issues. One common measure assesses the volume of news coverage in which the words “economy” or “economic” appear alongside “uncertain” or “uncertainty” to measure the degree to which the media is focusing on concerns about economic stability.

The percentage of such coverage that is accompanied by policy-related words like “legislation” or “policy” or “regulation” or “government” or “policymakers” or “president” or “Congress” or “Trump” offers a proxy for the degree to which policymaking is being presented by the media as a contributing factor to economic conditions.

The timeline below shows the percentage of mentions of economic uncertainty by year that also include policy-related terms.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the percentage of mentions of economic uncertainty invoking policy issues has risen linearly, showing just how central the current administration has made the economy in its policymaking and messaging. Thus far in 2019, more than 43% of the mentions of economic uncertainty have included policy issues, the highest of the past decade.

It seems the public has become increasingly concerned about the economy as well, with Google searches in the United States for “recession” last month reaching their highest point in more than a decade. In August, they briefly reached their fourth highest point since Google Trends started tracking search interest in 2004.

As Trump makes the economy a central theme of his 2020 reelection bid, there is a growing disconnect between his messaging and cable news channels’ relative lack of attention to date (other than on Fox News) to the strong economy. The growing centrality of the president’s policies in media discussion of the slowing economy only add to these complications for his messaging.


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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