How Negative is Political News Coverage?

Updated: 1-18-2018

This is a test-run of a new feature exploring how politics is covered by the mainstream U.S. news media.

Specifically, I’m undertaking an effort to estimate how negative – or positive – political news reporting is from major media outlets. At the moment, my analysis focuses solely on CNN and Fox News. CNN is included because they are a favorite target of the President, who frequently labels them “fake news,” and Fox News is included because they are generally regarded as having a conservative political slant, suggesting their coverage of the Trump administration might generally be more favorable than that of other news outlets.

The graphic below shows the average sentiment conveyed by CNN and Fox News between Saturday March 4, 2017 and Thursday January 18, 2018.

Sentiment is defined here as the average number of positive words per article each day (words like “love,” “respect,” and “admire,” for example) minus the average number of negative words per article each day (words like “hate,” “terror,” and “disgrace,” for example).

Over the course of the past week, both CNN and Fox News used more negative words than positive words in their political news coverage. However, CNN was slightly less negative than Fox News. During the past seven days, the average political news story at CNN contained 5.52 more negative words than positive words. At Fox News, however, the average political news story contained 10.09 more negative words than positive words.

Over the last 321 days, the average political news article from CNN included 3.44 more negative words than positive words, whereas over at Fox News the average article included 4.89 more negative words than positive words.

The graphic below shows the relationship between the average sentiments conveyed by CNN and Fox News.

At the moment, there is a only a slight positive correlation (r = 0.28) between sentiments. This means, for example, that on days when political coverage at Fox News tended to be fairly negative (when the average news story included either many negative words or few positive words), political coverage over at CNN also tended to fairly negative.

However, this positive relationship appears to be driven mostly by isolated and extreme events, such as the U.S. missile strike against Syria, which occurred on April 6, 2017. The following day on April 7, the average political news story at CNN contained 16.16 more negative words than positive words, and over at Fox News the average political news story contained 10.6 more negative words than positive words.

The most negative day of political news coverage over the past year was on December 4, 2017. This was three days after President Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with a Russian ambassador following the 2016 Presidential Election. On this day, the average political news story at CNN contained 9.5 more negative words than positive words. Over at Fox News, the average political news story contained 29.4 more negative words than positive words.


What were the Most Positive & Negative News Stories on Thursday January 18, 2018?

Least Negative Stories:

CNN: Government to shut down in 48 hours: What to watch (18 Negative Words vs. 38 Positive words)

Fox News: Trump heading to Pennsylvania to back GOP candidate Rick Saccone in key special House race (3 Negative words vs. 9 Positive words)

Most Negative Stories:

CNN: Bannon, Priebus, Spicer and the Mooch: A year in West Wing staff turnover (15 Negative words vs. 6 Positive words)

Fox News: Flake hits Trump over press attacks, goes too far by invoking Stalin (51 Negative words vs. 10 Positive words)


What Words Appeared Most Frequently in the News on Thursday January 18, 2018?



What was Happening in the News this Week?

Below is a list of the top headlines from each of the past 7 days, starting with Friday January 12, 2018 and ending with Thursday January 18, 2018. The list comes from Memeorandum, a website that employs an algorithm to auto-generate a summary of popular news stories throughout the day. Each article was featured as the top story as of 1:00 PM EST on each respective day.

  1. Friday, January 12, 2018: Trump attacks protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries in Oval Office meeting, Washington Post
  2. Saturday, January 13, 2018: Porn Star: Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels Invited Me to Their Hotel Room, The Daily Beast
  3. Sunday, January 14, 2018: Lewandowski: ‘We’ve got a real problem’ if Dems retake the House, The Hill
  4. Monday, January 15, 2018: Donald Trump’s Racism: The Definitive List, New York Times
  5. Tuesday, January 16, 2018: Inside the tense, profane White House meeting on immigration, Washington Post
  6. Wednesday, January 17, 2018: Steve Bannon Will Tell All to Robert Mueller, Source Says, The Daily Beast
  7. Thursday, January 18, 2018: FBI investigating whether Russian money went to NRA to help Trump, McClatchy Washington Bureau


A Little About the Methods

The findings presented here are based on a sentiment analysis of 8,800 articles from CNN (scraped from CNN’s politics RSS feed) and 3,157 articles from Fox News (scraped from Fox News’ politics RSS feed). The difference in the number of articles between the two news organizations is due to the fact that CNN offers 30 articles in their news feed at any given time, whereas Fox News offers only 10 articles in their news feed at any given time. Because the analysis of Fox News’ political coverage is based on a smaller sample size of articles, we should expect to see a greater number of extreme values – conveying either positive sentiment or negative sentiment – for Fox News relative to CNN.

Articles were scraped from each news feed at approximately the same time each day, roughly between 12:00 pm EST and 4:00 pm EST.

Text mining and sentiment analysis were performed using the tidytext package in R in conjunction with Bing Liu’s Opinion Lexicon.

A few words that were not intended to express either positive or negative sentiment, but which were flagged by the opinion lexicon as expressing sentiment, were removed from the corpus prior to analysis. Some examples of words that were removed for this reason include: “trump” and “right” – marked in the opinion lexicon as expressing positive sentiment – and “conservative” and “vice” – marked in the opinion lexicon as expressing negative sentiment.

Of course, these results should not be viewed as anything more than mere estimates of the average sentiments conveyed by CNN and Fox News. Moreover, these results most likely DO NOT reflect partisan bias in the media. For a listing of some important caveats and limitations to keep in mind regarding this analysis, and for a discussion of what these findings might – and probably do not – tell us about political news coverage, check out this post.



Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla