Brett Kavanaugh Did the Unthinkable

How ‘Kavanaugh’ unseated ‘Trump’ — and other Trends in News Data

Since his inauguration almost two years ago, ‘Donald Trump’ has dominated the news. Whether through skill or force of personality, it seemed as though Trump had at least some control over the media narrative. However for the first time since his election, Trump is no longer the center of the national media conversation. Over the past week, the big news has come from Capitol Hill instead of the White House.

‘Kavanaugh’ has unseated ‘Trump’

I’ve been scraping headlines from every major news site in America over the last few months. I feel that by taking this data-centric approach, I can get a more objective sense of how each media outlet approaches the news. Over the past week I noticed something interesting. The word “Trump” is no longer the top term in news. That dubious honor now belongs to Brett Kavanaugh. See for yourself.

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Top words in News Headlines from Sept 19–27, 2018

On the big three national news sites, ‘Kavanaugh’ is by far the most popular word. On CNN and MSNBC, the other top terms besides ‘trump’ are ‘ford’, ‘accuser’, and ‘brett’ — all words related to the sexual assault scandal surrounding the Supreme Court nominee.

Other media outlets also seem to be focussed on the Kavanaugh scandal.

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This one story has sucked up all the oxygen on certain media sites. On MSNBC for instance, a full 30% of news headlines have the word ‘Kavanaugh’ in them.

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Taken from News Headlines Sept 19 — Sept 27, 2018

Media Patterns that don’t involve “Kavanaugh”

If we take a look at the news through all of September instead of just the past week, we get a slightly broader view of the stories that people care about. Here are a few other observations that jump out from the data.

Location Matters

You can get a sense of the audience that a paper is targeting by looking at what words they use the most. For the LA Times, stories about ‘California’ and the ‘Dodgers’ are almost as popular as the Kavanaugh scandal. For the Boston Globe, the word ‘Boston’ reigns supreme. USA Today has a national focus and does lots of general interest stories (eg: “Best and worst car brands of 2018”), so terms like ‘Amazon’ and ‘Best’ are more popular thant ‘Trump’ and ‘Kavanaugh’

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Right-wing Media is Getting Pretty Dark

Using the SemtimetR library, I was able to get a measure of the sentiment of various news sources. Outside of the Washington Post (of “democracy dies in darkness” fame), all of the most negative news sources were conservative.

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News Source Sentiment — Sept 2018

Given the bad month they’ve had, it makes sense that Infowars headlines are the most negative. They come in with an average sentiment score of -0.18. Breitbart and the Daily Caller are close behind. Below we can see the top issues that concern their readers.

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The Washington Post Cares about Global Stories

The top terms at Wapo are all global in nature (“China”, “Russia”, “War”, “Korea”, etc). Perhaps their negativity is just the result of taking a broader view of America in the world. Kudos to Jeff Bezos and his paper for not getting completely caught up in domestic politics.

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Top terms in Washington Post Headlines — Sept 2018

NPR Focusses on Crime Stories in Addition to National News

Though most headlines on NPR involve words like “white house” and “trump”, a lot of them also focus on “police” and “guns”. Police violence and gun control are clearly top of mind with these readers.

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Bonus — British Media is Obsessed with Brexit

Quite rightly, it seems that British media has bigger fish to fry than who is headed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Both the Guardian and the BBC focussed on the most pressing issue surrounding Britain — Brexit.

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Left: Guardian Headlines — Right: BBC Headlines

Conclusions

I used to believe that the news is something that just happened, and that the media presented it in a mostly balanced manner. Now it’s clear to me that the reality is much different.

The popularity of the Brett Kavanaugh story shows that the media chooses what to focus on. After all, it’s hard to believe that other important world news stopped during his confirmation process. Of course, the fact that this story involves power, sex, politics, and violence surely helps to make it so popular. Nevertheless, I think there might be more going on.

The fact that this scandal is so prevalent in media on both sides of the political spectrum is telling. It means that both the Left and the Right think there is something to be gained from keeping it in the national spotlight. Come November, when Americans go to vote, we’ll get to see who really benefitted.

Written by

Engineer in San Francisco. Interested in words, networks, and human abstractions. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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