2020 presidential race coverage: the top stories, websites, and themes

October 30, 2020

Written by Benedict Nicholson
As we approach the crescendo of the 2020 election, we wanted to check in on the stories and publishers that have been influential in the last six months. 

We’re looking at the last six months specifically as Bernie Sanders officially dropped out of the race in mid-April, and Joe Biden was firmly solidified as the Democratic candidate in the next couple of weeks after that, after articles stopped focusing on the end of the primary race. So this data looks at articles written between May 1 and October 25 of this year. 

In this piece we will cover the level of engagement for Biden and President Donald Trump, the number of articles that have been written about them, and dive into some of the top narratives that have emerged, as well as which publishers are writing them. 

Let’s begin at the high level. 

Trump & Biden engagements since May 1st

Looking at American publishers, to which this analysis is limited, Donald Trump has significantly more engagements to content written about him than his rival for the presidency.

Graph showing engagements with stories about Biden and Trump in 2020
Part of this is due to a massive head start held by President Trump from the early months of the analysis, with Biden closing the gap in terms of public interest significantly as we move closer to the election. Of course, Trump currently holds the office so it is not an easy comparison between a candidate and a campaigning incumbent. 

This is borne out by the fact that the two candidates have roughly proportional engagement per article if you break it down by averages. The average article about each candidate gets 2,000 engagements, with Biden actually slightly ahead at 2,171 interactions per article compared to Trump’s 2,043. In short, while Trump has been getting around 3.5x the total engagement Biden is, he has been written about roughly 3.7x the rate, so if anything is slightly underperforming.

It is also worth noting that the engagement has simply exploded since the last election. In the same period in 2016, Trump received around 740 million engagements compared to Clinton’s 428 million. 

In other words, engagements with articles mentioning Trump amounted to far less than Biden’s total for 2020, and Clinton saw about half the engagement Biden has this time around, with around twice the number of articles written about her. So the average Biden article this time around is getting 4x the engagement that the average Clinton article did last time, while Trump is also performing at a little under 4x his own engagement rate from 2016.

We wanted to dig a little deeper into what kind of content was going viral about each candidate, and who was writing the most viral stories about them, so we categorized the top 1,000 stories since May for each. 

Analyzing who wrote the top 1,000 Biden and Trump stories 

Below is a chart for the publications that most frequently saw their articles appear in the top 1,000 stories about President Trump. 

Histogram showing the number of times publishers appeared in the 1,000 most engaged stories about Trump
The publishers featured here are overwhelmingly mainstream, with NBC News being the publisher that had the most stories among the top 1,000, closely followed by Fox News. CNN and The Daily Wire were not far behind with 72 and 71 articles respectively. Between them, these four publishers made up just over 30 percent of the top articles. 

A number of other legacy media outlets featured in this list, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Forbes, and NPR, while digital-first outlets Business Insider and HuffPost also made the top ten in terms of frequency of appearance. Between them, these ten publishers were responsible for more than half of the top 1,000 stories, totaling 536 entries into the list between them.

For Joe Biden the list looks a little different, though there is some overlap.

Histogram showing the number of times publishers appeared in the 1,000 most engaged stories about Biden
Fox News and The Daily Wire were the two publications that featured most frequently in the top 1,000 articles about Joe Biden, combining for more than 20 percent of the top stories. CNN and NBC News were again the top cable news outlets that featured in Biden coverage, though with fewer articles than there were for Trump.

More conservative outlets featured in the top stories about Biden, with Breitbart and Western Journal both appearing in addition to those already referenced. The New York Post also outperformed its city rival The New York Times by this metric, appearing 31 times compared to the latter’s 24. 

Overall, the top articles were more spread across different publications for Biden, with the top ten responsible for 480 of the top stories, so a little under half. 

But what were those top stories overall? Let’s break it out by the top stories individually and by narrative. 

The top stories and narratives about Trump 

The top stories about Biden and Trump since May are some of the top-performing stories anywhere in the world about any topic. They both had top stories that received millions of engagements. 

Chart showing the most engaged stories about President Trump in2020, ranked by engagement

The most engaged article that mentioned Trump in the headline or summary came from NBC News, with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the president’s attempt to end DACA receiving more than 7.5 million engagements. The Atlantic also had two highly engaged pieces, with Trump’s alleged comments about Americans who died in war and James Mattis’s denunciation of the president both hovering around 7 million engagements. 

The Times’s piece on Trump’s tax returns, which was their biggest piece of the year by far, received 5.8 million engagements. 

The very top articles don’t necessarily tell the whole story, though. That’s why we also categorized the top 1,000 stories about the president in the time period and tallied them by theme. 

Histogram showing the most engaged narratives about President Trump in 2020, ranked by engagement
In the top stories of the last six months, President Trump has most frequently been mentioned alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing protests for racial justice and equity, with some focus on the backlash against the protests too. The administration’s Covid response was referenced the second most often. Between them, these two topics made up 30 percent of the top stories. Election integrity was the third big topic among the top 1,000 stories. 

Let’s look at the top stories for each of the top categories. 

For Trump and the Black Lives Matter protests, the Atlantic’s story in which General Mattis criticized the president for his handling of the protests was the most engaged story.

Chart showing the most engaged stories about President Trump and BLM in 2020, ranked by engagement
Most of the top stories were critical of Trump’s handling of the protests, or about murals being painted in areas that were seen as sending an anti-Trump message. In particular, his clearing of a square filled with protestors to visit a local church was widely criticized. 

Despite the makeup of the top articles, the most frequent publisher in this category was the Daily Wire, with 23 of the 163 articles coming from them. NBC News, Fox News, and CNN followed with 13, 13, and 12 respectively. 

Covid articles here do not include Trump’s own diagnosis as we categorized that separately. The administration’s response to the pandemic was responsible for 143 of the top articles, while Trump’s own diagnosis saw 26 stories. 

Chart showing the most engaged stories about President Trump and Covid in 2020, ranked by engagement

Fox News’s report on the opening of churches amidst broad lockdowns was the top article for this category, with almost 6 million engagements. Another major narrative was hospital data bypassing the CDC and being sent directly to D.C., and hydroxychloroquine also featured in some of the top stories. 

NBC News and CNN were the top two publishers appearing most frequently for this subcategory, with 13 and 12 entries, while Fox News had 10. 

The final big topic we will examine here is election integrity.

Chart showing the most engaged stories about President Trump and election integrity in 2020, ranked by engagement

The conversation around election integrity was mostly focused on the USPS, at least at the high level. There were a number of articles alleging that the postal service was being sabotaged in one way or another to influence the election. There was also a significant reaction to Trump’s suggestion that the 2020 election be delayed, which was reported by the BBC and NBC News. 

CNN, NBC News, and The Washington Post appeared most frequently in the list talking about election integrity, with six stories each for the first two and five for the Post. 

For the sake of length, we won’t dive into any more of the top stories here, but if you are interested in the breakdown of any of the top narratives, feel free to get in touch with us. For now, let’s move on to the top stories and narratives about Joe Biden. 

The top stories and narratives about Biden 

Looking at Joe Biden’s coverage, the top stories were very different. 

Chart showing the most engaged stories about Joe Biden in 2020, ranked by engagement

The top Biden stories tended to either be about him selecting Kamala Harris as his VP or criticism from more conservative outlets. The top article overall was about Kamala Harris from NBC News, though this saw fewer engagements than any of the top ten Trump articles. 

In terms of the top narratives though, the picture is quite different again. Almost 20 percent of the top articles we looked at were stories of endorsements, with some coming from celebrities but most coming from former administration, bureaucratic, or military officials.

Histogram showing the most engaged narratives about Joe Biden in 2020, ranked by engagement
Accusations here, which is the second most frequently occurring storyline, includes various things including but not limited to the spygate affair and attempting to link Joe Biden to Hunter Biden’s alleged actions. This is differentiated from the Hunter category lower down in the list where only Hunter Biden and not his father are focused on in the headline of the piece. 

Although VP pick is only fourth in the list in terms of frequency, it was actually the second most engaged of the topics, as people reacted very strongly to the news despite it appearing less frequently than some other topics.

For endorsements where Biden was mentioned, they were mostly in his favor, though 50 Cent was the exception to this.

Chart showing the most engaged stories about Joe Biden endorsements in 2020, ranked by engagement

They were less engaged than many of the top stories, but still significant. The most engaged was a group of 200 retired military leaders endorsing Biden, while Rudy Giuliani’s daughter also caused a stir with her endorsement. The postal workers union’s endorsement was the other one to receive more than a million engagements. 

The range of publishers that wrote about endorsements was broad, with CNN, Fox News, NBC News, and the Daily Wire all having more than ten articles about the topic in the top 1,000.

This was a very different story to what we saw when talking about accusations about Biden, which was primarily driven by a few publications, at least among the top stories. Once again, the below articles exclude pieces that primarily focus on his son.

Chart showing the most engaged stories about Joe Biden accusations in 2020, ranked by engagement

The New York Post’s infamous piece on the Hunter Biden laptop was the most engaged by far, with more than 2.6 million engagements. The other top stories were a mix of Hunter Biden stories and ‘Spygate’ narratives. The New York Times had the tenth most engaged piece, saying that the Senate had cleared the former VP of any wrongdoing. 

This narrative was dominated by more conservative sites. Fox News, the New York Post, the Daily Wire, Western Journal, and Breitbart were the main forces behind accusations appearing in the top 1,000 stories. 

Finally, let’s look at the top VP pick stories, which didn’t show much variety but were broadly covered.

Chart showing the most engaged stories about Joe Biden's VP pick in 2020, ranked by engagement
Most of the top stories were straight reporting about Kamala Harris being selected as VP pick, though there were also a couple of pieces looking at her record or being critical of a speech she made in the early days after her selection as Biden’s running mate. 

It is obvious, then, that the stories that have gone viral for each candidate have been considerably different. President Trump has had a great deal of coverage in the more mainstream press, while Biden’s has been a mix of the mainstream and more conservative digital outlets. The articles about each candidate reveal they are associated with completely different themes, with surprisingly little overlap for two men running for the same office. We’ll be keeping track of the final few days of the campaign in our election briefing, which you can follow here

If you’d like to talk to us about our research, please don’t hesitate to reach out. If you’d like to do research like this yourself, you can check out NewsWhip Analytics.

Benedict Nicholson

In addition to leading the NewsWhip Research Center in New York, Benedict Nicholson manages partnerships with internationally recognized media outlets furthering data journalism, which includes NewsWhip’s Data for Democracy program. Benedict also facilitates consultations with communicators from the top 10 public relations agencies across America and Europe and with Fortune 500 brands to discuss consumer engagement trends and effective media monitoring. Email Benedict via benedict.nicholson@newswhip.com.

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