Let’s just say media coverage of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows.
Not that it should be: Trump’s alleged history of sexual assault, racial discrimination, and shady tax practices are all serious matters. But the media’s tone on Trump comes largely from the man himself: His rhetoric is bombastic, he casually encourages violence, and fear-mongering is one of his default messaging tactics.
So it came as no surprise when The Atlantic’s computer assessment of more than a year’s worth of news coverage—from more than 50 newspapers and websites—suggested that coverage of Clinton was, overall, slightly “happier” than coverage of Trump. Part of that determination involved comparing the emotional sentiment of various words that cropped up more often in articles about one candidate or the other. (You can read more about that experiment here.)
There were limitations to the approach (for one, it was colored by the language of the candidates' own quotes ), but the end result was revealing and intriguing. Still, we had all this data on our hands, and I wanted to zoom in a bit closer.
Beyond identifying the most positive or negative words that were strongly associated with coverage of either candidate, I wanted to know which words pop up most overall in coverage of Clinton versus coverage of Trump. Perhaps we would see more references to “pantsuits” or gendered descriptions like “shrill” in Clinton stories. Or maybe there would be an outsized number of references to “bronzer” and “short fingers” in articles about Trump?
Using the same database of about 60,000 articles published between July 2015 and August 2016, and with help from the computer scientist Andy Reagan from the University of Vermont, a computer was able to come up with a short list.
Here are the words you’ll find most often in a year’s worth of coverage of Clinton—meaning, all of these words appear more often in stories about the Democratic nominee than they do in the overall dataset:
Clearly, Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State was a major focus of news coverage, and that’s reflected in this list. (Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, also came up frequently, which makes sense since the dataset includes articles from October 2015, when Congress questioned her about the incident.)
And here’s a snapshot of coverage about Donald Trump’s campaign from the words most likely to be in articles about him rather than his opponents:
As with our previous experiment, the result wasn’t completely surprising—but it does offer a word-cloud-esque portrait of what journalists have focused on in coverage of each campaign.
Others have built similar data-oriented tools for distilling campaign coverage. The Northeastern University history professor Benjamin Schmidt has a website where you can type in a word and see how often it came up in TV coverage of either candidate.
It seems that television coverage is, in at least some ways, tonally consistent with stories published online and in newspapers about the campaign. A quick crosscheck of the words from our list above illustrates as much: “Blowhard” comes up exclusively in conjunction with TV coverage of Trump, while “careless” is frequent in coverage of Clinton but near-absent in coverage of Trump.
One word that’s fairly evenly distributed across television coverage of both campaigns? “Unlikeable.” And when it comes to this election, that may be the most revealing word of them all.