News Hacking: The Trump/Russia Saga So Far

In this series, we’ll be looking at what’s capturing attention each month across a wide range of topics – from politics, to science, to entertainment. How does the media cover breaking news and how do audiences engage?  

Bombshell reports this month on Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort’s meetings with Russian lawyers dominated media coverage, further illuminating Trump’s alleged connection to Russia in multiple ways. To provide some context around how much of our attention was captured by the coverage on these reports, and see how this month’s revelations compared to previous reporting, we went back and looked at the amount of time readers have spent reading about Trump/Russia-related coverage since February, when Flynn resigned in the first major development of the storyline since inauguration.

It’s no surprise that the major advancements in the Trump/Russia investigation have resulted in large spikes in reader attention, with some even reaching up to 9 times the amount of Total Engagement that initial reports of Flynn’s resignation garnered.

In the graph below, we took a look at reader engagement with the Trump/Russia narrative since February:

As you can see, the two biggest spikes in reader attention occurred in the same week, sparked by the firing of James Comey as director of the FBI. Engagement on the collection of articles surrounding Comey’s dismissal accrued 203 million minutes of attention during a 5 day span – compared to Flynn’s resignation, which accrued just over 31 million total minutes of attention – with a single day peak of 72 million minutes.

The next story broke in quick succession after Comey’s firing when the President met with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House and was reported to have both denigrated Comey and revealed classified code-word information. Within a four day period this storyline racked up 224 million minutes of engaged time peaking at 82 million minutes.

To use this as context for last month’s breaking developments, reports of Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort’s meetings with Russian lawyers alleging to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton accrued 282 million minutes of attention. This story had a much lower single-day peak in attention than Comey’s dismissal or the Trump/Kislyak meetings, however stayed relevant for a whopping 16 days, as opposed to the 4 to 5-day lifespans experienced by the previous stories, highlighted below. This longer story lifespan lead to a higher total engagement for Trump Jr. story.

With all of the revelations and subsequent reader interest during the month of July, it’s no surprise that the number of articles published by media have also been ramping up. The graph below illustrates the volume of media coverage around Trump/Russia since February:

The graph above shows the same Engagement trend line as before, this time overlaid onto the number of articles published about Trump/Russia during that time period. It’s interesting to note that there are a few clear discrepancies between volume of coverage and volume of attention. For example, media coverage saw a huge spike when the obstruction of justice investigation was announced, whereas reader engagement was relatively lower. On the other hand, reader engagement spiked when Sessions’ Russia meetings were revealed, whereas coverage around that time was a little more dispersed.  

Each time a big story breaks, we see attention coalesce toward a small number of narratives. Narratives here are groups of articles that, despite being presented by different publications or authors, for the most part address the same content. For example, after the firing of Comey, all articles about President Trump’s tweets insinuating he had recordings of his and Comey’s meetings would be considered one narrative.

To measure how distributed attention is across narratives we use Shannon Entropy. Points of low entropy represent moments in which user attention concentrates on a small number of narratives, signaling important and evocative developments which unite readers and get them focused on a singular event. Points of high entropy represent instances where user attention is very distributed across all available narratives, indicating a large variety of reader focal points.

As we can see in the graph below, entropy tends to drop with each large spike in attention, clueing us into moments of story development in the Trump/Russia saga. It’s interesting to note that this is particularly the case for the spike corresponding with Congressional testimonies.

The three points at which attention was the most concentrated (or had the lowest entropy) over the timeline correspond to:

  1. Comey’s first Congressional testimony when it was announced that the FBI was investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials
  2. Sally Yates’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee concerning Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election
  3. Jared Kushner’s meeting with the Senate Intelligence Panel on Russia

These dips become especially pronounced likely because of the timeliness of each issue – with each moment, many major news organizations release publicly available transcripts of meetings, such as Comey’s transcripts released the day prior to his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee or Kushner’s pre-meeting statements, which allow the public to follow along with each new piece of information. The low entropy we see shows how a singular narrative starts to capture the majority of reader attention.

At a time when political news breaks almost weekly, it’s interesting to take a look at how each narrative compares in terms of coverage and reader interest. How do you see this larger storyline evolving? Will reader interest diminish or will it continue to grow? 

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