is the media biased towards or against trump

President Trump In Imagery – Is there a bias?

Amid President Trump's assertions of inaccurate reporting since stepping into the political spotlight, the frenzy over media bias has reached a fever pitch. President Trump has labeled certain media organizations as purveyors of “fake news” and has referred to them as “the enemy of the people.” Politicians, academics, talk radio hosts, and other critics have also accused the media of partisan bias.

But are President Trump’s assumptions founded in truth? Subconscious or not, is there a systematic bias in the way left- and right-leaning media outlets represent President Trump through imagery? To find out, we used our image recognition system to pull images from more than 5,000 news articles relating to President Trump over the course of the eight months between August 2016 and March 2017. All articles were sourced from American online media outlets.

We chose to look at imagery in media because the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than it does text. Furthermore, with humans retaining 80% of what we see, but only 20% of what we read, it only makes sense that our opinions of products, politicians, and other people would be influenced more by imagery than by text.

Given this fact, we assumed that editors and journalists would selectively use imagery to represent President Trump in an effort to sway public opinion of one political persuasion or another. We put this supposition to the test, using our artificial intelligence-driven, image-processing system to see if President Trump was in fact portrayed in ways that might influence public opinion.

Our methodology was simple. We did a cross-comparison analysis of 5,000+ images containing President Trump from 12 U.S. online news sources, covering conservative, moderate, and liberal media based on a Pew Research Center study [1] of political polarization and media habits of the American news audience.

Here are the media outlets we studied from August 2016 to March 2017:

do news sources have a political bias
Table 1. Twelve American online news sources and the corresponding political groups according to the average political orientation of each source’s audience.

We hypothesized that to inform public opinion, outlets would portray President Trump as follows:

  • Angry - The liberal outlets would use imagery of President Trump looking angry to portray frustration and a lack of accomplishment.
  • Happy - Conservative outlets would visualize him happier to reinforce that everything is going well.
  • Crowds - Conservative outlets would show President Trump surrounded by crowds as a “man of the people.”
  • Alone - Liberal outlets would show him isolated as a “man with no allies.”
  • With Family - Conservative outlets show family to increase perception of family-friendly side.
  • Without Family - Liberal outlets show to decrease perception of family friendly side and illustrate selfishness.
  • With Soldiers + Flags - Conservative outlets would lean on imagery with President Trump amidst a backdrop of flags or surrounded by men and women in uniform to show patriotism.
  • Oval Office - Conservative media would promote more "presidential" and "in command" portrayals of President Trump by having imagery of him sitting in the oval office.

After we formed our hypotheses, we used our AI to analyze the imagery, and eight independent human reviewers to ensure accurate image classification. Images were classified according to the type of facial expression (angry, happy, or neutral), as well as the categories seen below:

how often is the media biased
Table 2. The most frequent categories (from the most to the least) for each ideological group.

As can be seen in the graph below, President Trump only and President Trump with the American flag were the two most used pieces of imagery by a wide margin. The New York Times had the most even image distribution of all the outlets analyzed.

how do images impact perception
Fig. 1. Image category frequency across 12 American online news sources

There were some surprising results that can be seen in this visualization as well:

  • Both liberal and moderate media used imagery of President Trump surrounded by crowds with much greater frequency than the conservative media.
  • We assumed that conservative media would be more likely to use imagery of Trump’s family and lean especially heavy on imagery with Ivanka Trump to show strong, healthy family ties. However, results proved the opposite. Liberal media used imagery of Trump’s family more frequently than conservative media. *Note: This may indicate that liberal outlets intended to highlight the president's nepotistic dealings.*
  • Similarly, we assumed that both conservative and moderate media would feature President Trump with service men and women more frequently than the liberal media, but found the opposite to be true.

In addition to classifying images by the attributes above, the facial expressions of President Trump were recorded and analyzed. The following images are a sample of facial expressions illustrating how images were tagged.

trumps facial expressions
Fig. 2. Examples of anger, neutral, and happy facial expressions of President Trump

The results of facial analysis were equally if not more surprising. Liberal sources used imagery of President Trump looking happy with slightly greater frequency than other media sources, and there was no statistically significant difference between the frequency of his facial expression and political leaning of the media.

do media outlets portray trump differently?
Fig. 3. Distribution of the facial expressions

While the accusations alleging that journalists have biased points of view may or may not be true, the imagery used in their pieces has yet to be used as a way to sway or manipulate the public's opinion. Based on our comprehensive visual analysis, we found there to be much more consistency between conservative and liberal media than what we initially expected.

[1] MITCHELL, A., GOTTFRIED, J., KILEY, J. & MATSA, K. E. 2014. Political polarization & media habits. Pew Research Center.