As part of my Mass Media and American Politics class (syllabus linked below), I tried something new this past semester (Fall 2021). I assigned students into groups and gave each group a topic to track in the media over the course of the semester. The topics were:
- COVID (including Delta variant and vaccine boosters)
- 2022 Midterm elections
- Voter fraud (including election laws and voting bills)
- Climate change
Each student in each group tracked mentions of the topic each week in a specific media outlet. Options included:
- New York Times and LA Times, using the Nexis Uni database.
- A local newspaper
- Twitter: One student in each group tracked three well-known journalists, three politicians, and three politically active celebrities or athletes. We used an R script to pull tweets from each account each week.
- Cable news shows: the Fox News Network, or one MSNBC host (Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes). MSNBC provides online transcripts of their cable shows, and you can keyword search for the topics each week. Fox News does not do this as easily, but Nexus Uni allows for keyword searches of all Fox News programming
- Major network news, such as ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC’s Nightly News, using the Vanderbilt News Archives.
Below I plot the tracked coverage in the NYT across the topics. The horizontal line represents the mean weekly mentions across all weeks and all topics in the NYT. As can be seen, mentions of voter fraud and the 2022 midterms were very rare, while climate change and Trump were consistently and frequently mentioned (with a spike in climate change mentions around the fall COP26 climate summit). COVID and Taliban mentions dropped, the latter significantly, over the course of the fall.
The goal of the project was not just about tracking volume. First, students had to grapple with keyword search parameters for more nebulous topics (voter fraud, for example), how to handle passing mentions in stories, and duplicate search results in some of the databases. Second, students paid attention to how the topics were covered and framed. Each group did a presentation at the end of the semester, all of which were interesting and incredibly comprehensive.
This was a fun exercise, and I look forward to doing it again when I next teach the course.