About half of stories about Biden’s  early days in office mentioned Trump – regardless of outlet’s audience type

Following an election whose results were fiercely contested and a turbulent presidential transition, former President Donald Trump accounted for a considerable part of the news media’s early narrative about the Biden administration. During the first 60 days of the new administration, roughly half of stories about the Biden administration mentioned Trump in some way (48%), according to an April 2021 Pew Research Center report looking at news coverage of Biden’s earliest days in office.

The share of stories referencing Trump is about the same when looking across news outlets grouped by the political makeup of their audiences.

Among outlets with right-leaning audiences, 47% of stories about the Biden administration also referenced the former president. That figure was the same for outlets with a mixed audience (47%) and on par with outlets that have a left-leaning audience (50%). (A Trump reference includes all mentions of him, but not of members of his family or general references to his administration.)

This analysis of mentions of Donald Trump in news coverage of President Joe Biden’s first days in office drew on our April 2021 report on news media coverage of the early days of the Biden administration and Americans’ perceptions of that coverage. The Center has analyzed news coverage of the beginning of each of the five presidential administrations since President Bill Clinton in 1993. The most recent study is comprised of two components, an analysis of media content and a survey analysis. The findings here are only from the analysis of media content.

The analysis of news coverage of Biden’s first 60 days in office is based on a selection of media coverage collected from Jan. 21 to March 21, 2021. Stories were collected from television, radio, digital and print outlets and coded by a team of nine coders trained specifically for this project. Each story was analyzed for whether Trump was mentioned. This includes all mentions of him, but not of other individuals such as his family members and former administration members or of references to his administration broadly.

Visit here for more about the report’s methodology.

This is the latest post in Pew Research Center’s ongoing investigation of the state of news, information and journalism in the digital age, a research program funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Trump less present in Biden administration coverage as time progressed

References to Trump decreased over time, however, and were more common in certain kinds of stories than others. 

Mentions of Trump in Biden stories decreased over time

In the first two days following the inauguration (Jan. 21 and 22), roughly three-quarters (72%) of Biden administration stories mentioned Trump in some way, and 60% of stories continued to reference Trump in the following week.

However, as the new administration rolled out initiatives and appointed Cabinet members, references to Trump declined. During weeks three through six (Feb. 1 to 26), Trump references appeared in around half of stories. They then fell to 30% in week seven (March 1 to 5), the same week that Neera Tanden withdrew her name as Biden’s nominee to head the White House budget office, Democrats agreed to limitations on stimulus check eligibility and Senate Democrats overcame an impasse on unemployment benefits to advance a COVID-19 relief plan. Also in the news that week were an end to mask mandates in Texas and Mississippi, a high-profile interview between Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey, and reports that several Dr. Seuss books ceased publication due to concerns about negative racial imagery.

Attention to Trump then picked up somewhat, remaining around 40% for the last two weeks studied (ending on March 21).

In addition to looking at which stories about the Biden administration’s early days mentioned Trump, the study also tracked mentions of the coronavirus pandemic. Stories that mentioned COVID-19 in a “major” way included references to the virus in at least half the story, while stories mentioning COVID-19 in a “minor” way were those that referenced the pandemic in less than half the story.

Trump more likely to be mentioned in Biden stories where COVID-19 played little to no role

Trump, who drew criticism for downplaying the seriousness of the virus throughout his time in office, was much less likely to be mentioned in stories where COVID-19 was a major focus.

About six-in-ten stories that mentioned COVID-19 in a minor way (61%) also referenced Trump. The same was true for more than half of stories that did not mention the virus at all (56%). But the percentage falls to 34% among stories that mentioned COVID-19 in a major way.

Trump made more appearances in Biden stories framed around leadership than policy

When Trump became president in 2017, leadership and character were dominant factors in the media’s framing of his earliest days in office. And this emphasis on Trump’s role as a leader was apparent in coverage of the current president as well.

Trump was mentioned more often in Biden coverage focused on leadership than on policy

Among stories about the Biden administration that were framed around Biden’s leadership or character, more than half (56%) mentioned the former president. In comparison, 44% of stories framed around Biden’s policy agenda acknowledged Trump in some way.

Overall, coverage of the Biden administration was much more heavily framed around Biden’s policy agenda than leadership. The majority of stories from Biden’s early days in office were centered on his policy and agenda (65%), while the reverse was true for Trump – 74% of stories about Trump’s early days were framed around leadership, and 26% around his policy agenda. 

The five topic areas covered most in stories about Biden’s early days in office were the economy, health care, immigration, Biden’s nominations and hires, and political skills. Mentions of the former president were particularly prominent in stories about two of these topic areas. Among stories about Biden’s political skills, about three-quarters (72%) referenced Trump. That’s roughly on par with stories about immigration (68%) – an issue that was particularly polarizing during Trump’s term – but well above other common story topics such as Biden’s nominations (48%), health care (37%) or the economy (29%).

Note: Here is the methodology for this report.

Kirsten Worden  is a research assistant focusing on journalism research at Pew Research Center.
Amy Mitchell  is director of journalism research at Pew Research Center.