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Is Trump Drowning Out Other News?

The president has an unusual ability to draw attention to himself, but news coverage is finite, and other issues may be getting less attention as a result.
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media after he returned to the White House from Florida on September 14th, 2017.

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media after he returned to the White House from Florida on September 14th, 2017.

Presidents, of course, are always going to receive substantial news coverage. Given their power and potential influence on the American political system and the world, this level of coverage seems largely warranted.

But that coverage comes at a cost. The president is hardly the only important political actor. Congress gets far less attention, even if it is the body actually developing most of the national policies that will affect Americans. State and local governments get paltry coverage in comparison, although the work they do has the most direct effect on our daily lives.

Meanwhile, coverage of particular issues will vary greatly based on judgments by writers and editors about what people are interested in and what's currently important. Food safety is obviously important, for example, and it will get its share of media attention. But a war or a natural disaster or even a celebrity feud could temporarily drown out coverage of food safety, even if an important problem remains unresolved.

This seems particularly relevant in the Donald Trump era. Even by presidential standards, Trump is unusually successful in drawing media coverage. He gets coverage for the usual things presidents do—foreign travel, addresses and rallies, bill signings, etc.—but also for tweets and incendiary statements most other presidents simply never made. Yet newspapers aren't getting bigger and 24-hour news channels can't add additional hours to their days. Are other stories losing out?

To test this in an admittedly very limited way, I examined news coverage of police shootings over the past three years. To measure coverage, I looked at the number of monthly news stories in the New York Times containing the words "police shooting."* I compared these with the actual numbers of officer-involved shootings, as compiled by the Washington Post's "Fatal Force" archive.


The orange line above shows the number of officer-involved shootings each month since January of 2015. Notably, this line holds remarkably constant over time, averaging a little over 80 shootings per month. The blue line shows the number of New York Times stories about police shootings each month. This measure jumps around a bit, and it's far from a perfect measure. (The spike in July of 2016 is driven largely by a sniper attack on police officers in Dallas that left five officers dead, rather than officers shooting civilians.) Nonetheless, we do see a drop in coverage of police shootings in 2017.

This trend is a bit more stark in the below bar graphs, which simply looks at the average number of stories per month and the average number of of shootings per month across all three years.


Importantly, the subject of the story itself—officer involved shootings—has remained pretty constant over time. Coverage of that story has dropped significantly during Trump's presidency, however.

Now, there are plausible causes for this trend other than Trump's attention-grabbing behavior. It's possible the issue just isn't as salient now because it's seen as an ongoing matter rather than a new one. It's possible the issue drew more attention in the recent past because Barack Obama, as an African American, was expected to do more to address the issue of police killings of black citizens. Nonetheless, the trend is consistent with the idea that more coverage of Trump leads to less coverage of everything else.

A concern expressed repeatedly by observers of the Trump presidency is that most of the crises he has faced have been of his own making. How will he behave once he faces a challenge of office that he didn't create? In fact, he's been facing challenges all along. The killing of unarmed civilians by police officers remains a serious crisis, as does North Korea, opioid abuse, climate change, flooding, and other matters. To the extent Trump has an approach to dealing with such crises, it seems to be to draw attention away from them.