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Monmouth College Researchers Analyzing Overseas Coverage of the U.S. Presidential Race

Rich Egger

Media outlets in other countries are closely following this year's presidential election in the United States. A couple researchers from Monmouth College are involved with a project to examine what is being reported and how it differs from four years ago.

Dr. Robert Hinck, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, said they chose to look specifically at coverage in Russia, China, and Iran because those countries are typically antagonistic toward U.S. interests.

“And in that sense they have, generally speaking, the most interesting or divergent worldviews or understandings of what’s happening around the world, and that’s what we were trying to capture there,” said Hinck. 

Credit Courtesy Monmouth College
Robert Hinck

He said all three countries portrayed the 2016 election as full of drama and as a decline of U.S. democracy. The countries emphasized that many voters disliked both of the major party nominees, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat HIllary Clinton. 

On the other hand, those three nations -- Russia in particular -- were cautiously optimistic about Trump. “In 2016 Donald Trump was an unknown. Foreign nations saw that he could mean a break in typical U.S. foreign policy. They were interested in his deal-making background and they thought there might be new ways to cooperate with the United States in ways that would support their interests,” Hinck said.

He said this year those countries are characterizing President Trump negatively but are not doing so with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“All three countries we analyzed seem very tired of Trump’s antics and they see Trump’s actions as unpredictable and destabilizing on the world stage,” Hinck said. 

“At this point it seems like there is a preference for some stability, a return to at least a modicum of U.S. leadership.”

He said the countries also are emphasizing the Trump administration’s shortcomings on domestic challenges such as racial issues and the coronavirus pandemic. And China in particular is focused the U.S. recession.

Hinck said the researchers plan to continue collecting data for about a week after Election Day and perhaps longer if the outcome remains in doubt.

Machine Assisted Data Collection

Robert Utterback, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics,and Computer Science at Monmouth College, developed an algorithm that he said allowed researchers to sort through stories from the three countries more quickly than they could do without a computer.

Credit Courtesy Monmouth College
Robert Utterback

“This isn’t the type of machine learning that’s replacing a human. It’s the type of machine learning that tries to assist a human,” said Utterback.

He said the algorithm helped the researchers find sentences that mentioned key actors and then calculated a sentiment score that told them whether those actors were viewed positively or negatively.  He said they also did topic modeling that helped group articles by themes. It took some effort and know-how but once it got rolling it wasn’t too difficult.

“It’s something we’re excited about at Monmouth College. We have a data science program that we’re just starting. It’s something we can get students involved with relatively quickly in their academic careers,” Utterback said.

Utterback and Hinck agree the research project uses the best of both worlds by bringing together social sciences and data/computer sciences, providing insights that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

A third researcher, Skye Cooley of Oklahoma State University, also participated in the project.

Their recently wrote about their findings for the online publication The Conversation

According to The Conversation, all three researchers receive funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Defense.

This story was produced by Tri States Public Radio.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.