How Negative is Political News Coverage?

Updated: 08-22-2017

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 Tuesday August 22, 2017.

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 exhibited slightly more negativity than Fox News. During the past seven days, the average political news story at CNN contained 9.40 more negative words than positive words. At Fox News, however, the average political news story contained 5.23 more negative words than positive words.

Over the last 172 days, the average political news article from CNN included 2.82 more negative words than positive words, whereas over at Fox News the average article included 3.33 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 = 0.26) 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, in large part, by just a few 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.


What were the Most Positive & Negative News Stories on Tuesday August 22, 2017?

Most Positive Stories:

CNN: Polls: Majority in 3 key states ’embarrassed’ by Trump (6 Negative Words vs. 21 Positive words)

Fox News: TRANSCRIPT: Trump remarks on the war in Afghanistan (97 Negative words vs. 154 Positive words)

Most Negative Stories:

CNN: Why one big-time Republican consultant thinks Trump won’t be president by 2019 (55 Negative words vs. 21 Positive words)

Fox News: No blackout: Could Trump’s Afghanistan move eclipse his political problems? (21 Negative words vs. 11 Positive words)


What Words Appeared Most Frequently in the News on Tuesday August 22, 2017?



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 Wednesday August 16, 2017 and ending with Tuesday August 22, 2017. 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. Wednesday, August 16, 2017: Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost, New York Times
  2. Thursday, August 17, 2017: Steve Bannon, Unrepentant, American Prospect
  3. Friday, August 18, 2017: White House review nears end: Officials expect Bannon firing, Axios
  4. Saturday, August 19, 2017: Bannon: ‘The Trump Presidency That We Fought For, and Won, Is Over.’, Weekly Standard
  5. Sunday, August, 20, 2017: Trump’s Approval Rating Stands Below 40 Percent in Three Key Midwest States, NBC News
  6. Monday, August 21, 2017: Exclusive: Secret Service out of money to pay agents because of Trump’s frequent travel, large family, USA Today
  7. Tuesday, August 22, 2017: Angry Trump Grilled His Generals About Troop Increase, Then Gave In, New York Times


A Little About the Methods

The findings presented here are based on a sentiment analysis of 4,686 articles from CNN (scraped from CNN’s politics RSS feed) and 1,682 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. Both news feeds are embedded below.

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.


CNN Politics Feed

  • Trump on the rampage
    on August 23, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Donald Trump just showed why even some Republicans question whether he has the temperament and the capacity to serve as President. […]

  • Trump defends Charlottesville responses, omits reference to 'many sides'
    on August 23, 2017 at 8:44 am

    President Donald Trump is trying to turn the page on a disastrous week in which his comments responding to white supremacists' actions in Charlottesville, Virginia, were condemned across the political spectrum by all but his adoring base. […]

  • Rally Trump vs. Teleprompter Trump
    on August 23, 2017 at 10:20 am

    And just like that, everything is back to abnormal. […]

  • Trump to speak in Nevada Wednesday
    on August 23, 2017 at 10:24 am

    President Donald Trump has another speech out West on Wednesday, coming just hours after he held a campaign rally in Phoenix, this time with a scheduled stop in Reno, Nevada. […]

  • Trump's Charlottesville defense omits two key words
    on August 23, 2017 at 7:19 am

    US President Donald Trump tried to rewrite history Tuesday, defending his comments over the clashes in Charlottesville while leaving out the very words that ignited anger in the first place. […]


Fox News Politics Feed



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