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Data reveals the topics reporters are asking the White House about the most

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A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Nearly every day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki heads into the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, stands at the podium, and fields questions from the press. The questions asked of her are a good reflection of where the press’ priorities are. So it’s worth wondering: what topics are reporters most often asking Psaki about?

Richard A. Lee, a professor at the St. Bonaventure University Jandoli School of Communication, thought the question would serve as a good assignment for a media and democracy class he teaches each semester. He assigned his 22 students to review each briefing in March and sort the hundreds of questions into various topic buckets. Lee reviewed the work of his students and provided us the data.

“People either make assumptions or talk anecdotally and I think it is important to start with some data,” Lee explained to me on Tuesday. Lee conceded that the data his students compiled “doesn’t tell the whole story.” But he pointed out that it is a good “starting point” for conversations about the press.

So what were the results? According to the data, questions related to health were the most prevalent in briefings, with 155 questions asked, which makes sense given the pandemic. Number two was immigration with 131 questions, followed by international affairs with 129 questions.

The public’s priorities

Of course, the press represents the public in the briefing room. So how do the press’ priorities line up with the public’s priorities? A survey from the Pew Research Center, released in late-January, might offer some insight. While it is not perfect, given that priorities of the public can change given what is in the news at any given time, it’s helpful. The survey from Pew asked people what they believed should be a top priority for President Biden and Congress.

The top two answers: Strengthening the economy (80%) and dealing with the coronavirus pandemic (78%). Other topics that were on the public’s mind? Reducing health costs (58%), improving education (53%), and addressing issues around race (49%). Notably, immigration was lower on the list, with 39% of respondents selecting it as a priority — although this survey was taken before the surge of unaccompanied migrant children at the US-Mexico border.

If you compare the results of the Pew survey to the results of the data Lee’s class compiled, it does show that reporters are asking about one of the public’s top priorities: the coronavirus pandemic. That said, one could argue more questions about the economy and race are warranted.

The top two topics are intriguing

One aspect of the data that is interesting: The two topics reporters were most interested in reflected both the issue that the White House is eager to talk about (the coronavirus pandemic and their rapid rollout of vaccines), and another issue that the admin would rather have avoided addressing (the situation at the southern border).

Lee’s grade

Given that he is a journalism professor who grades students for a living, I asked Lee what grade he might give the White House press corps. “I would give them a good grade,” he told me. “Maybe a B+ or A-.” Lee said he would have “liked to see more questions on race as it is a big issue in the country right now.” Of the results, he told me that was one thing that “surprised” him.

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