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Content Analysis

Content Analysis

What do Americans get from their newspapers?

In general, they get more institutional coverage, a more traditional mix of topics, more news of domestic affairs and government and also more anonymous sourcing than they do in other media. They also get a news agenda, on their front pages at least, that has changed less over the years than in other types of media.

To get a sense of newspaper content, the Project studied 16 newspapers from a range of circulation sizes over the course of a month. First, four randomly selected dates for each day of the week were selected – 28 days in all, spread out from January 8 to October 6 of 2003. Then U.S. daily newspapers were divided into four circulation categories and four papers from each group were selected at random, looking, when possible, for geographic diversity. The Project then examined, in detail, every article from three section fronts: the front page, metro page and lifestyle page. In all, 5,867 articles were studied.1

How has the front-page agenda of newspapers changed over the years? We do have some sense of this.

An earlier study by the Project examined the front pages of major newspapers in 1977, 1987 and 1997.

A look at comparable papers in 2003 finds that the front-page agenda has continued a small but steady trend toward a broader definition of news.2 Even in a year with war in Iraq and resulting American deaths, there was no sharp jump in international, military or government coverage.

Subjects of Front Page Newspaper Articles by Year
Percent of All Stories

Subject 1977 1987 1997 2003*
Government 33% 33% 30% 27%
Foreign Affairs 27 27 21 21
Military 1 3 * 3
Domestic Affairs 9 9 14 22
Entertainment/Celebrities * 2 2 1
Lifestyle 4 5 6 8
Crime 9 6 10 4
Business/Commerce 8 6 5 5
Science 1 4 5 5
Accidents/Disasters 7 3 2 3
Other 2 3 4 1

*Analogous percentages are based on the largest circulation category in the 2003 study. Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Government news makes up a somewhat smaller percentage of front-page articles than 20 years ago, and even smaller than in 1997. Foreign affairs, even with the war, made up a smaller number of the articles on the front page than in the 1970s during the cold war, but about the same as six years ago. The number of articles about crime continues to fall on the front page.

At the same time, the number of lifestyle articles keeps climbing, as do the number about other domestic matters besides government.

Topics in the News: Newspapers versus Network Nightly News
Percent of All Stories, 2003

Subject Network Nightly News Newspaper A1 Only
Government
16%
26%
Foreign Affairs
25
18
Defense/Military
3
3
Domestic Affairs
16
22
Crime
6
7
Business
12
6
Celebrities/Entertainment
2
1
Lifestyle
6
8
Science
2
3
Accidents/Disasters
10
4
Other
2
2

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

How does the overall newspaper treatment of topics compare to other media studied?

On television, the closest news agenda comparison is newspaper front pages to the network nightly news. Even here, though, there are differences.3

Newspaper front pages devoted more attention to government news than did network nightly news (26 percent versus 16). The front pages devoted a little less attention to foreign affairs than the network nightly news, something that reflects the local nature of many smaller papers. It may also reflect the fact that much of the foreign coverage often falls on the inside pages of newspapers.

The newspapers devoted more front-page space to domestic issues, but less to economics and a good deal less to accidents and disasters.

Newspapers differ even more from network morning newscasts.

If people were to watch network morning shows instead of reading the front page of a morning newspaper, they would get a very different news agenda – only a third as many stories about government as in newspapers, 11 times as many about entertainment, more than twice as many crime stories and nearly triple the number of accident/disaster stories.

A fairer comparison between newspapers and morning shows (of which we studied the first hour each day, the time more oriented toward major news) might also include the metro and lifestyle sections of the newspaper.

Topics in the News: Newspapers versus Network Morning News
Percent of All Stories, 2003

Subject Network Morning News Newspaper A1 Only Newspaper Total
Government
8%
26%
21%
Foreign Affairs
17
18
7
Defense/Military
4
3
1
Domestic Affairs
10
22
19
Crime
18
7
7
Business
2
6
4
Celebrities/Entertainment
11
1
8
Lifestyle
14
8
23
Science
2
3
2
Accidents/Disasters
11
4
3
Other
3
2
4

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Even here, there are big differences. Morning shows still had almost a third the number of stories about government, half as many about business, triple the number of accident/disaster stories and twice as many crime stories. The crime comparison is particularly notable, given that metro sections are often prime territory for crime and that crime is inherently local.

Morning shows also did twice as many foreign stories but half as many lifestyle stories as newspapers across these three section fronts.

When it comes to comparisons with cable, the Internet or news magazines, we must be cautious. While we studied a month of newspapers and network television, an analogous time period for news magazines is only four issues, and for cable news and Internet we studied extended periods over five days.

In general, the news agendas of newspaper front pages and Internet lead articles seem fairly similar and quite traditional. This may come as little surprise. The Internet at this point is largely a print medium, and the articles themselves are mostly wire copy or newspaper articles.

The agenda on cable television news seems different. It is extremely focused on foreign affairs and government, and not so concerned with domestic affairs.

Other Points About Newspapers Overall

Newspapers also stand out from other media for their originality. In all, 85 percent of the articles on newspaper section fronts were staff-generated. That compares to 32 percent of the lead stories on the Internet that were staff-reported. (For Internet this meant a staff person connected to the central news organization, i.e. a New York Times staff person who also reports in the print pages or a CNN correspondent who also appears on air.)

The comparison to television might be to stories with a correspondent involved or clearly some staff reporting, as opposed to brief stories or something explicitly identified as coming from an outside source. In the commercial evening news, 56 percent of stories were staff-produced. In mornings, 64 percent were staff-produced.

What about anonymous sourcing? Earlier studies have suggested the use of confidential sourcing in newspapers depends, not surprisingly, on the article. The level found here is basically consistent with what we found in 2001 in coverage of the response to the terrorist attacks. There, roughly 25 percent of all articles contained anonymous sources. In the broader 2003 study, 28 percent of all articles contained at least one anonymous source.

When confidentiality was granted to sources, there was almost always some attempt by the paper to describe the source’s level of knowledge or potential biases, such as a police officer working on a case or a Republican operative. Only 2 percent of articles contained an anonymous source without some description of their relationship to events, such as “sources said.”

At the other end of the spectrum, more than half of the articles studied (52 percent) contained the highest level of source description, that is four or more sources who were not only named, but of whom some attempt was made to describe their pertinent knowledge, expertise or potential biases.

How does newspaper sourcing compare to other media? Commercial network television news, evening and morning, was more likely to use blind anonymous sourcing (14 percent on commercial evening and 6 percent on morning versus 2 percent in newspapers) without any description of who the source might be. The commercial networks were about as likely to use at least one anonymous source that they tried to describe (29 percent on evening and 27 percent on morning versus 28 percent for newspapers).

The networks were also less likely than newspapers to contain the highest level of sourcing, four or more named and fully described sources (18 percent for commercial evening news and 8 percent for morning shows versus 52 percent for newspapers and 71% for A1 articles).

Protagonist

Who were newspapers making famous? What was driving the news?

For years critics have argued that television has personalized, or even “celebritized” news, causing journalists to build their stories more around people. The White House, this critique went, became a backdrop for the president. Government stories became focused around a single personality – the mayor in town, taking on the special interests. Politics became more personal. Coverage focused more around scandal.

Does the content bear this out?

Not in 2003 at least, according to this study, and not in newspapers. The news in 2003, apparently, was driven by events.

Overall, only 32 percent of newspaper articles focused at least half of their content around a single personality. If one looks only at Page A1 articles, the number is even smaller, 28 percent. Metro pages were most likely to build articles around individual protagonists, 36 percent.

Newspaper Tendencies Toward a Central Protagonist
Percent of All Stories

Protagonist Total A1 Style Metro
Person 32% 28% 33% 36%
Institution 17 21 12 16
None 51 51 55 48

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

If newspapers were not building articles around personalities, were they doing so around institutions, such as the Bush administration, city hall, Enron or Wall Street? Not really. Even fewer articles, 17 percent, were built around institutions.

Instead, articles tended to focus on several people talking about events and ideas – not pegging them around institutions or people.

Not even President Bush was the center of newspaper articles studied, something that was also found in other media. While a third of the articles were built around a primary protagonist, President Bush was this personality in less than 1 percent, or 54 of the 5,867 studied. If one looks only at A1 front pages, the number rises to only 2 percent.

When it came to articles about the war in Iraq, the Bush administration, rather than the president, was more likely to be the focus. In all, 12 percent of articles about Iraq focused on the administration or other federal entities, such as the Pentagon, compared with just 2 percent that focused on President Bush.

How celebrity-driven were newspapers compared with other media? Overall, 4 percent of newspaper articles studied focused around a celebrity – primarily on the style section-front. This compares with 19 percent for magazine articles.

Newspapers By Size

How much difference does circulation size make in the character of what people get from newspapers? Do the very largest papers in the country – those with circulations above 750,000 – cover the same topics in roughly the same way as slightly smaller metropolitan newspapers or even medium-sized papers? (Comparisons below look at the two mid-range groups combined.)

In general:

At the largest papers, those with more than 750,000 circulation, just 40 percent of the space studied was devoted to local articles (remember one section front is metro). This increases to 69 percent at midrange papers, 100,000 to 750,000 (the two-mid circulation groups combined), and then 75 percent at the smallest papers (less than 100,000).

The reverse occurs with national coverage. Large papers devoted 25 percent of the space studied to national articles. Midsized papers devoted 14 percent and small papers 12 percent.

And, if one relies on a smaller local paper, those with less than 100,000 circulation, how much international news would they get on the three section fronts? Just 9 percent of the space examined, versus 22 percent at the largest papers and 13 percent at the papers in between.

The length of articles shifts with newspaper size as well. Larger papers, not surprisingly, run longer articles on their section fronts. At the very largest general circulation papers in the country – The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post – the majority of articles, 64 percent, were more than 1,000 words. It was closer to a quarter of all articles at the midsized papers, and just more than one in ten articles at the smallest circulation papers.

Story Length by Circulation Category
Percent of All Stories

Story Length Large Mid Small
1,000 or Less 37% 71% 87%
More than 1,000 64 29 13

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Looked at another way, the average article length at the largest papers was about 1,200 words. The average was just more than 800 words at midsize papers and fell to less than 600 words at the smallest papers.

Traditionally, smaller newspapers have relied on wire services such as The Associated Press and Reuters and so-called supplemental services, such as The New York Times News Service, for much of their national and international coverage. They simply lack the resources to keep reporters in Washington or in other parts of the world. This study confirms that this is still true. Almost 40 percent of A1 articles were from wire services at the smallest papers, 31 percent at papers with circulations of 100,000 to 700,000, and less than 1 percent at papers with circulations more than 750,000.

Papers of different sizes also differed in how they sourced articles. The biggest papers were much more likely to use anonymous sources, especially in their own staff-written articles.

Almost half of all articles in the biggest papers contained some kind of anonymous sourcing, though most of the time the paper did attempt to describe the sources, their potential biases or why they were credible.

The level of anonymity declined with circulation size. At the midsized papers, only a quarter of articles contained anonymous sourcing.

At the smallest papers, confidentiality was even more limited. Just 18 percent, for instance, contained confidential sources with some attempt at describing them and 3 percent of articles contained fully blind anonymous sourcing without any description of the source or why it was credible.

Wire copy was more likely to contain anonymous sourcing than was staff-written copy. Fully 42 percent of wire articles versus 27 percent of staff-written articles contained anonymous sourcing (with some attempt to describe the source).

Why, then, don’t smaller papers, with heavier reliance on wires, have more anonymous sourcing than larger ones?

The answer appears to be that in their original work smaller papers are much less likely to offer sources anonymity than are larger papers. Indeed, staff-written copy at the smallest papers studied was a third as likely to contain anonymous sourcing than staff-written copy at the biggest papers. Overall, 15 percent of staff-written articles at small papers contained anonymous sources (with some description) versus 46 percent at the largest papers.

Articles on Page A1 were more likely to contain anonymous sources than those on metro or lifestyle. At the biggest papers, the majority of A1 articles contained anonymous sourcing (63 percent with some description attempt to describe the source and 5 percent contained totally blind anonymous sourcing). At the smallest papers, it was less (37 percent with some description, and 8 percent totally blind).

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Footnotes

1. All Page One stories from the Rockford (Illinois) Register were removed from the newspaper database before analysis. This was dictated by the unique front-page format of the Register, which differed from all other newspapers in this study. No complete stories are found on Page A1 of the Register; rather, abridged stories are presented, referring the reader to the full account, found on other pages throughout that day’s edition. Stories published on the lead pages of the Metro/Local and the Style/Living sections of the Register are included in this analysis.
For the New York Times, the following daily selections were made re: applicable “soft news” section: Monday, Tuesday – Arts & Culture; Wednesday – Dining In; Thursday – House and Home; Friday – Escapes; Saturday – Arts & Ideas; Sunday – Styles.

2. The comparable papers are the four papers in our largest circulation category, those with more than 750,000 copies sold daily. Since the early studies looked at number of articles, the comparison here is by articles rather than by inches as is done below. In the 2003 data, the percentage breakdowns of articles and inches are nearly identical.

3. The analysis now is by words for print and seconds for broadcast. Again there was vast similarity in the two ways of examining the data — volume and story.