Are news outlets selectively negative about certain subjects?

If it bleeds, it leads

Old saying in the news business

News outlets have many variables within their control that can influence public opinion about a subject. The most basic ones, such as the curation and selection of facts, give them exceptional power over the kind of information we can access. Others, like tone, time, and extent of coverage can subliminally affect our perception of the reported subject.

In this study, we will focus on a specific variable: the overall sentiment of a news article. Are news outlets selectively positive/negative in their reporting of certain subjects?


10 news outlets
ABC News, CNN, NBC News, Huffington Post, CBS News, USA Today, BuzzFeed, NY Times, Fox News, and Washington Post
10 subjects
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Climate Change, Marijuana, Abortion, Vaccination, Gay Marriage, China, Israel, and Palestine
10 000 news articles
100 for each outlet/subject combination, via Google News
Sentiment analysis
Using AlchemyAPI, a platform which calculates the overall contextual polarity of an article: -1 is negative, 0 is neutral, 1 is positive

Overall Sentiment

First, let's explore some overall statistics: the average sentiment per outlet and subject.

All outlets publish mostly negative news. This is not a bias introduced by the selected subjects; other studies have reached similar conclusions. In fact, trying to understand why news reports are predominantly negative is an active area of research. The consensus seems to be that people have a neurological predisposition to focus on negative information, and news outlets just use that to their own benefit.

People love bad news, but some outlets like to report them more than others. ABC News has the least amount of negativity in its news, while Fox News is the most negative.

No subject receives an overall positive sentiment. Donald Trump is the one with the least number of negative articles, with Hillary Clinton not too far back. Abortion and vaccination are rarely reported with a positive tone.

Sentiment per Subject

Let's dig deeper into the data and see how news outlets report various subjects. Click on the titles to see the charts.

Some of the most interesting findings:

  • Most outlets are more positive about Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. An exception is the NY Times, which has the same sentiment towards both.
  • Israel/Palestine is a very divisive subject. ABC News, Huffington Post, and Fox News are clearly more positive towards Israel, while USA Today and CNN publish less negative stories regarding Palestine
  • Fox News is one of the most negative about Marijuana and China, while NBC News is positive towards both
  • Outlets that are significantly negative about abortion, like the NY Times and Huffington Post, are mostly positive about gay marriage.

Similarities between Outlets

We can use this type of data about news outlets to ascertain their similarity. The idea is simple: if they have identical sentiments about the same subjects, they are similar to each other.

After going through the charts, you might get a sense that certain groups of outlets are consistently rated in a similar way to each other. Fortunately, there are some statistical techniques to test this hypothesis.

There are four distinct groups: one composed solely of ABC News, and three others led by Washington Post, Huffington Post, and CBS News, respectively.

So, what did we learn from all this?

Some interesting findings came out of this analysis:

  • All outlets are predominantly negative, with no exceptions.
  • Donald Trump is the subject with the least amount of negative news.
  • Almost all outlets are more positive towards Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.
  • The Israel/Palestine subject is very divisive, with outlets being more negative towards one of the sides.
  • No outlet is identical, but they form groups based on their shared sentiment about certain subjects.

Every outlet is more negative about certain subjects. Are these sentiments conscious decisions of their editorial boards? That is a question we leave unanswered.