Authors: Jack Beckwith, Nick Sorscher, and Aziz Kamoun
Back in November, after a tweet from President Trump about whether burning the American flag should be a criminal offense, reporters Michael Grynbaum and Sydney Ember posed an interesting question in a New York Times article: if Trump tweets, is it news? One can make a case for either side. As the leader of the free world, Trump’s every move and musing has potentially global ramifications. Then again, the whimsical nature of the President’s tweets and his tendency to reverse course on policy issues makes reporting on Trump’s Twitter challenging and sometimes misleading.
With the media’s conundrum in mind, The DataFace team decided to see how the media has been covering Trump’s Twitter in practice. How much attention has Trump’s Twitter actually elicited in the press both before and after his election? To answer this question, we dissected a dataset of over 40,000 articles written about Trump since July 1, 2015 on the websites of 10 major media outlets — The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, among others. You can read more about our methodology in the last section.
Whether or not Trump’s Twitter account should dictate the news cycle, the media still fixates on it. For much of his presidential campaign, a bare minimum of 15% of articles written about Trump each month included some reference to his Twitter activity. For our purposes, we’ve defined a “reference” to Trump’s Twitter as either a citation of a specific tweet or a general allusion to his account. Below, we’ve charted how this percentage has changed over time.
From November 8 to January 16, the daily percentage of articles that cited Trump’s tweets skyrocketed from 22% to 44% among our chosen outlets. On New Year’s, a day after Trump dropped this gem, 58% of articles mentioned Trump’s Twitter habit. And while the daily trend is volatile, the data aggregated at a weekly or monthly level yields a clearer picture. Trump’s Twitter has earned a healthy amount of news coverage over the last year and a half and is only becoming more prevalent as his Presidency unfolds.
While the media may collectively obsess over Trump’s tweets, not all media outlets in our sample contribute equally. In the next graphic, we look at the percent of articles that cited Trump’s Twitter broken out by news source. Use the toggles to see how each outlet’s treatment of his account has evolved over three different time periods – in the past 12 months, in the past six months, and since November 8.
TIME seems to be Trump’s most diligent follower, including a nod to his Twitter presence in one third of its coverage of him since Election Day. By contrast, the bottom three sources — The Weekly Standard, CNBC, and The Wall Street Journal — all fall below 20% over the same period.
Yet, across all outlets, the pull of Trump’s Twitter seems to have grown stronger of late. Every outlet’s allusions to the President’s tweets have increased proportionally since November 8. So it’s not just a handful of news organizations driving the recent uptick in interest surrounding Trump’s Twitter. Many major media outlets seem to be complicit.
We know Trump’s Twitter activity is covered closely by the press, but not all his tweets are inherently newsworthy. Some come and go without attracting much media attention, while others become the center of national conversation for days. So which of Trump’s tweets have garnered the most chatter in the press? Again, we look at the data through the lens of three different timeframes.
Since election day, Trump’s now infamous statement about the “millions of people who voted illegally” is the most cited tweet in our sample. Other tweets on paid protestors, Russian hacking, and America’s nuclear arsenal also attracted plenty of recent coverage.
Over the past twelve months, Trump’s most mentioned tweet comes as no surprise — his call for the public to check out Alicia Machado’s “sex tape” tops the list with 48 mentions. Trump’s 2012 tweet on global warming as a “Chinese hoax” sneaks in at number two, proving yet again just how important it is to delete your early social media activity. Trump’s views on global warming aside, of his 30 most cited tweets in the last year, twenty of them were posted since Election Day. This is yet another indicator of how sharply coverage of his account has grown in recent months.
Now two weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump seems to have no intention of ending his run on Twitter. He’s already pushed back on reports of his inauguration crowd size and berated a federal judge. And if history is a guide, the media will be there, surveying his Twitter feed every step of the way. Expect to see more 140-character sound bites at the top of the nightly news hour the next four years.
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To collect the data needed for this study, we scraped the websites of ten major media outlets: The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, TIME, Slate, Politico, and The Weekly Standard. Articles were collected by searching for “Donald Trump” on each website and storing the content of the results. We limited our final dataset to articles that included a reference to Trump’s name either in the headline, URL slug, or first sentence. This was done to filter out articles listed in the search results that weren’t primarily focused on the President. In total, the additional filtering left us with 40,833 articles for analysis.
To determine whether an article included a “reference” to Trump’s Twitter, we first programmatically searched the HTML underlying each article to see if any of Trump’s tweets had been embedded in the page (as has become commonplace these days). We then combed through the article’s text for any direct quotes from Trump’s tweets, where at least six consecutive words matched. If a particular Trump tweet was either embedded or quoted in an article, we tallied a “media mention” for that tweet (as displayed in the final table).
Along with specific tweet citations, we also captured general allusions to Trump’s Twitter account. We searched the text of each article for a series of key phrases — “Trump’s Twitter”, “Trump tweeted”, and others — that indicated the story at least refers to his Twitter activity. Articles that included either a tweet citation or general allusion were considered to have mentioned his Twitter for the purposes of the first two graphics.