Domestic politics is almost always the leading topic in U.S. media, followed by stories about finance, international relations, and technology. But the unusually intense focus on U.S. politics, and especially the presidency, since 2016 has had major consequences for the rest of the media ecosystem.
Read: Trump’s media saturation, quantified
In 2014, 7 percent of stories were about sports. By 2019, that percentage had dropped to 5.2. (In 2020, with most sports on hold because of the pandemic, the share is 4.4 through mid-July.) This drop in attention might not be a call for alarm in and of itself—the future of our republic is probably not dependent on ensuring a constant level of NFL coverage—but this change in media focus is indicative of larger shifts taking place.
Media Cloud indexes stories from tens of thousands of publications and adds metadata to each story to assist media researchers. Over the course of a year, stories are sorted into more than 400 topical bins. Some bins are far more populated than others—there are many more stories about “finance” than “flowers and plants.” One shorthand for thinking about the diversity of topics represented in the media is to consider how many topic bins are required to represent 50 percent of stories. In 2013, Media Cloud sorted stories into 443 bins, from “politics and government” to “commuting” (that year’s least popular). The 37 most popular bins contained 50 percent of 2013’s stories.
Let’s contrast that with 2019, when the scandal over Trump’s pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began to dominate news coverage. Media Cloud sorted stories into 434 bins that year, but 50 percent of the stories were contained in 24 bins. Picking news stories at random in 2013, you had a significantly higher chance of encountering a story that was about a less popular topic than if you conducted the same experiment in 2019.
News diversity has fallen since 2016’s presidential election, and it’s fallen further in 2020, as stories about the pandemic have taken over the news globally. Fourteen Media Cloud topics—two of them explicitly focused on public health and disease—are all that’s needed to represent 50 percent of the stories published in 2020 thus far. The year isn’t over yet, and topical diversity may increase, but right now, 2020 looks to have a more compressed media agenda than we’ve seen in the past four years of Trump compression. This makes sense: The coronavirus is the only story that’s been able to claim more media attention than Trump himself, and the focus on the pandemic is pushing out any number of other stories that might have garnered attention in a less fraught moment.
The reasons for compression in 2020 are easily apparent. Not only does the coronavirus, which touches the lives of everyone on the planet, demand coverage at the expense of other topics, but many events that normally would be covered have been delayed or canceled. With sports and Hollywood largely on hold, large categories of stories are absent. But the compression that predates this year, going back to 2016, demands a broader explanation.