How the Shutdown Is Being Framed in the Media




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The first two government shutdowns of 2018 were brief affairs. As the third one extends into its second week, how is the media framing the impasse? Is it a war between Democrats and Republicans or is it “Trump’s shutdown”?

Glance at CNN’s website and the shutdown would appear to be the sole fault of President Trump and the Republicans. CNN also made sure its viewers knew that Ivanka Trump took time off in Florida: “Top aide Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, they’re not in Washington this week. They’re in Florida. Along with their Secret Service detail, by the way, which is not being paid right now.” As the shutdown wore on, CNN sharpened its tone, with one of its guests offering, “Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are down in Palm Beach at Mar-a-Lago, frolicking around Florida.”

Missing from CNN’s criticism of the First Daughter is any mention that Nancy Pelosi similarly jetted off for a Hawaiian vacation instead of remaining in D.C. to negotiate an end to the deadlock.

In contrast, Fox News’s website made certain to report on Pelosi’s luxury holiday but appears to have said little about Ivanka’s getaway.

Across the pond, the Daily Mail took no sides, reporting on both vacations, along with Lara Trump’s.

Beyond criticizing each side’s holiday plans, how have media outlets been framing the shutdown narrative?

The timeline below shows the combined percentage of airtime on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC since Dec. 1 that mentioned “Republican or Republicans,” “Democrat or Democrats” or “Trump” within 15 seconds of “shutdown.”

From the moment the shutdown became increasingly likely through the day before it actually happened, coverage was fairly balanced, mentioning both parties fairly equally. However, once the government actually shut down, coverage has centered on Trump and the Democrats, with Republicans an afterthought.

Turning to worldwide online news coverage, the timeline below shows the percentage of coverage in the 65 languages monitored by the GDELT Project that matched the same searches. Here Trump dominates by far, with the overwhelming majority of coverage mentioning him. Unlike television’s coverage, Democrats were not mentioned more often until Dec. 24 and Republicans have been steadily gaining ground in mentions even as mentions of the shutdown as a whole fall.

Notably, as the shutdown has worn on and overlapped with the holidays, total mentions have decreased over time on both television and in online news coverage. The media appear to be running out of things to say about it. Is the public growing tired of the story as well?

The timeline below shows the total U.S. search volume on Google about the shutdown since Dec. 1. Google does not report the actual number of searches, instead treating the day with the highest number of searches as 100 percent and reporting the other days as percentages of that peak.

As with media coverage, search interest has rapidly declined, showing that both the media and the general public are less and less fixated on the shutdown.

Putting this all together, across both television and online media, Trump has dominated coverage of the shutdown. The overarching narrative has been one of Trump versus the Democrats, with Republicans an afterthought. As the shutdown has stretched onward, both media coverage and public interest have sharply declined, suggesting neither side may see urgency to resolve an impasse that no one seems to care greatly about.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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