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Biden Already Dominated Cable News Coverage. Then The Ukraine Story Broke.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal broke a story about a phone call between President Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, in which the president allegedly asked Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden. And the story has quickly taken over Biden’s news coverage.

According to data from the TV News Archive,1 which chops up cable news from three networks we monitor — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — into 15-second clips, the five words used most often in clips mentioning Joe Biden last week were: “president,” “Ukraine,” “Trump,” “son” and “investigate.” More than a third of the clips from Friday and Saturday that mentioned Biden also mentioned Ukraine. And according to data from Media Cloud,2 a database of online news, over 60 percent of stories that mentioned Biden in those two days also mentioned Ukraine.

And the story seems to have helped keep Biden’s name at the top of the cable-news heap. Biden was mentioned in a larger share of cable news clips than the next six Democratic candidates combined last week, including in more than two and a half times as many clips as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and more than five times as many as Sen. Bernie Sanders. But the trend doesn’t hold in online news — there, Biden is still the most-mentioned candidate, but by a much smaller margin.

The Ukraine story meant a big week for Biden on cable

Share of 15-second cable news clips mentioning each candidate vs. share of online stories mentioning each candidate in a Media Cloud search

Cable TV clips the week of … online stories the week of …
Candidate 9/8/19 9/15/19 diff 9/8/19 9/15/19 diff
Joe Biden 43.3% 54.0% +10.6 50.9% 44.5% -6.4
Elizabeth Warren 26.0 20.7 -5.2 48.2 41.7 -6.5
Bernie Sanders 14.7 9.9 -4.8 46.1 34.3 -11.8
Kamala Harris 7.5 7.7 +0.2 31.6 22.1 -9.5
Pete Buttigieg 3.4 4.4 +1.0 24.8 18.6 -6.2
Julian Castro 8.8 2.4 -6.4 23.9 12.8 -11.0
Cory Booker 4.5 4.0 -0.5 21.8 12.6 -9.1
Andrew Yang 3.6 2.4 -1.2 20.3 11.9 -8.4
Amy Klobuchar 3.3 1.8 -1.5 18.5 10.3 -8.3
Bill de Blasio 0.1 1.6 +1.6 4.8 8.4 +3.5
Beto O’Rourke 12.4 6.7 -5.7 12.8 7.6 -5.2
Tulsi Gabbard 0.4 0.5 +0.1 7.0 4.4 -2.6
Marianne Williamson 0.4 0.1 -0.3 5.2 3.4 -1.8
Tom Steyer 0.7 0.3 -0.4 5.2 3.4 -1.8
Michael Bennet 0.1 0.5 +0.4 3.6 3.0 -0.6
Tim Ryan 0.5 0.3 -0.2 4.3 2.6 -1.7
Steve Bullock 0.2 0.1 -0.1 3.4 1.8 -1.6
John Delaney 0.3 0.2 -0.1 3.2 1.7 -1.5
Joe Sestak 0.0 0.0 +0.0 1.5 1.0 -0.5

Includes all candidates that qualify as “major” in FiveThirtyEight’s rubric. Each network’s daily news coverage is chopped up into 15-second clips, and each clip that includes a candidate’s name is counted as one mention. For both cable and online news, our search queries look for an exact match for each candidate’s name, except for Julian Castro, for whom our search query is “Julian Castro” OR “Julián Castro.” Media Cloud searches use two of the database’s publication lists: “top online news” and “digital native” publications. Percentages are calculated as the number of stories or clips mentioning each candidate divided by the number of stories or clips mentioning any of the 2020 Democratic contenders for that week.

Sources: Internet Archive’s Television News Archive via the GDELT Project, Media Cloud

The story about Trump’s call to Ukraine is likely to continue to unfold in the coming week. Impeachment talk is once again swirling among Congressional Democrats, and Sen. Mitt Romney has expressed concerns over the matter, making him the first big-name Republican to do so. In the coming week, we’ll be looking at the numbers to see just how much this story continues to permeate media coverage of Biden’s 2020 campaign.

Check out the data behind this series and check back each week for an update on which candidates are getting the most coverage on cable and online.


  1. The TV News Archive measures coverage by splitting CNN, Fox News and MSNBC’s daily news footage into 15-second clips and finding the clips that contain a mention of our search query. Our search queries are the full names of each candidate. The GDELT Television API, which processes the data from the TV News Archive, measures a week of coverage from Sunday through Saturday. The cutoff for measuring coverage for any given day is midnight Eastern Standard Time. (Clock changes for Daylight Saving Time are ignored.)

  2. Our search queries are the full names of each candidate, except for Julian Castro. Since his name is sometimes written with an accent mark and sometimes without, our search query for him looks for “Julian Castro” OR “Julián Castro.” We aggregate the data from Sunday through Saturday of each week to match the queries of TV news. Media Cloud dates articles based on when the article page says the story was published, which means that it is insensitive to time zones and its cutoff times each week may be slightly different than the times used for the cable news data.

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.