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Content Analysis

Content Analysis

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute

What were Americans getting from their newspapers in 2004? How did papers cover the two big stories of the year, the war in Iraq and the national election? Is the quality of reporting in newspapers different in some measurable way from other media?

To answer these questions, the Project conducted an extensive examination of 16 newspapers over the course of 28 randomly selected days – a month spread out through the year.

The answer, similar to the answer a year ago, is that readers of newspapers get coverage that is more a traditional mix of hard and soft news than in other media, and that is more focused on institutions than in other media. Newspaper readers also get stories that are generally more deeply sourced and longer and broader in scope than in other media. And they get information from more anonymous sources than in other media, though less than they did a year ago.

The Project studied 16 newspapers from a range of circulation sizes over the course of a month. First, four dates for each day of the week were randomly selected – 28 days in all, randomly selected from January 13 to September 26, 2004. 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 that began on three section fronts: front page, metro front and sports front. In all, 6,589 articles were studied.1

Subjects of A1 Newspaper Articles by Year
Percent of All Stories

1977
1987
1997
2003*
2004*
Government
33%
33%
30%
27%
35%
Foreign Affairs
27
27
21
21
14
Military
1
3
*
3
2
Elections
9
Domestic
9
9
14
22
14
Entertainment/Celebrities
*
2
2
1
1
Lifestyle
4
5
6
8
7
Crime
9
6
10
4
4
Business/Commerce
8
6
5
5
4
Science
1
4
5
5
3
Accidents/Disaster
7
3
2
3
3
Sports**
3
Other
2
3
4
1
2
Totals may not equal 100 because of rounding.
*Analogous percentages are based on the largest circulation category in the 2003 and 2004 studies.
**Before 2004, sports was included in the lifestyle subject category. For 2004, due to the inclusion of the sports section front, it is listed.

Topics in Newspapers

How did the front-page agenda of newspapers change in 2004 from a year earlier?

The year saw an easing-off of intense coverage of foreign affairs, indeed the lowest total in any year we have ever studied. The war in Iraq was still a major story, but coverage of the U.S. government took the lead. Some of this shift occurred because the Iraqi war became at times a domestic story with the 9/11 Commission, the torture policies of prisoners and the debates over U.S. intelligence.

Indeed, the government and the election combined took up so much of the space on the front page – nearly 44% of the stories over all – that coverage of every other news category fell from a year ago. Even coverage of a broad range of domestic issues, which had been rising in recent years, fell back markedly, from 22% of front-page stories to just 14%.

Lest anyone think, however, that this is a feature of just the biggest papers, the opposite was true. It was the smallest papers that devoted the greatest percentage of front-page stories to government affairs, and much more so to local than to national government. Among the smaller-circulation papers (those with under 100,000 circulation) government affairs alone accounted for 4 in 10 stories, and those were four times more likely to be local rather than national.

There were other differences, too, in the choice of topics between larger and smaller papers. The smallest papers also devoted twice the percentage of front-page coverage to crime – 6% versus 3% at the largest papers – a sign perhaps that other than the big celebrity crime stories, crime is fundamentally a local story. Smaller papers also gave more than twice the A1 space to lifestyle – 9% versus 4% at the largest.

In addition to fewer government stories over all, the biggest papers also carried more 2004 election stories (13% of the front pages of the big papers versus 5% at the smallest) and, not surprisingly, more international affairs (17% at the largest papers, 14% at mid- sized papers, and 12% in the smallest circulation group).

How does the agenda on the front page of newspapers compare to that of other media? The chart below illustrates differences among the media.

Topics in the News
Newspaper A1 versus Other Media
Percent of All Stories

A1 All Nwsps
A1 Large Nwsps
Comm. Evening
Comm. Morning
Cable
Online
Government
35%
30%
27%
20%
14%
32%
Foreign Affairs
14
17
14
7
9
16
Military
2
2
1
0
6
1
Domestic
14
15
21
16
13
19
Election
9
13
9
7
12
8
Entertainment/Celebrities
1
1
2
6
13
3
Lifestyle
10*
7*
5
5
10
5
Crime
4
3
2
4
4
2
Business/Commerce
4
5
8
2
3
3
Science
3
3
3
3
1
1
Accidents/Disaster
3
1
4
5
3
6
Other
2
2
4
25
11
3
Totals may not equal 100 because of rounding.
*Includes 3% sports coverage for both “all newspapers” and “large papers.”

Other Points About Newspapers Overall

Newspapers also stand out from other media in several ways besides the topics they cover.

For one thing, more stories in newspapers are gathered and written by the newspaper rather than secondary sources. In all, 82% of the stories are original, compared to 32% of Internet stories studied.

The comparison to television might be to stories with a correspondent involved or clearly some staff reporting, as opposed to brief anchor reads or something explicitly identified as coming from an outside source. On both the commercial evening network news and the morning programs roughly 62% of the stories involved correspondent work while 38% were briefs.2

A year ago, incidentally, 85% of newspaper stories were staff-written.

Depth and Quality of Sourcing

One of the most basic questions about the value of a work of journalism is the nature of its sourcing. How deep is the sourcing, what are the range of views offered, and how much can the audience decide for itself what to think about the story? These are essential elements in trying to assess the quality of reporting.

To break this down, we studied sourcing several ways.

First we measured how many sources a story contained. Then we measured how transparent the sourcing was – that is, the number of sources included, with their relationship to the story made clear. We measured the number of viewpoints a story contained. Finally, we measured how many different stakeholders, or affected interest groups, were consulted in the story – something different from viewpoints, since two different interest groups might hold the same view. Let’s take these components of sourcing one at a time.

How Transparent Is the Sourcing?

We will start with the transparency of the sourcing, the degree to which the audience can see who the source was, what the source’s level of expertise was and any possible biases the sources might have. The assumption here is that the more audiences learn about sources, the more they can judge for themselves what to make of those sources and thereby evaluate the information in the story.

Nearly half of all newspaper stories, 48%, contained the highest level of transparency – four or more sources that were fully identified. (When opinion columns are removed, the percentage rises just slightly, to 51%.) Front-page stories had even more, 64%, compared with 43% of the metro front and 34% of sports front.

In contrast, only 7% of newspaper stories studied across all sections contained no fully identified sources.

This is a much higher degree of transparency than we found in other media.

Source Transparency, Newspapers

All
A1
Metro
Sports
No Sources
7%
2%
10%
11%
1 Source
12
6
15
14
2-3 Sources
33
28
32
41
4+ Sources
48
64
43
34
Totals may not equal 100 because of rounding.

There were differences, again, among papers of different circulation sizes. Larger papers tended to be more transparent about their sources than smaller papers. Looking at front pages, fully 80% at the largest papers contained four or more fully identified sources. This was twice the percentage of stories reaching that threshold than at the smallest-circulation papers (40%) and about a fifth more than at mid-sized papers (67%).

Anonymous Sourcing

Newspapers caught our attention this year also because of apparent low percentages of anonymous sourcing. Just 7% of all stories, and 13% of front-page stories, contained anonymous sources.

This is down markedly from a year ago, when 29% of stories contained at least one anonymous source.

As was also the case in 2003, the reliance on unnamed sources grew as the papers got bigger. Among the largest papers, 12% of all 2004 coverage contained anonymous sources, compared to just 3% at the smallest papers and 6% at mid-range papers.

On page A1, the gap was only slightly smaller – 20% at the largest-circulation papers, 7% at the smallest and 11% at mid-range.

How did newspapers compare to other media when it came to anonymous sourcing? Commercial network television news, evening and morning, was more likely to use anonymous sourcing (53% on commercial evening, 47% on the PBS NewsHour and 50% on morning).

Number of Viewpoints in Newspaper Stories

The second component of measuring the depth of reporting was to count the points of view reflected in stories that involved some controversy. Here, again, newspapers look pretty solid. The larger news hole afforded print may explain part of that.

Over all, about one in two stories involved no dispute at all. These were stories about weather, accidents, fires, celebrities, charities and the like, in which there was no conflict over either the facts or their interpretation. That also applied to straight news accounts of events, including game reports on the sports pages.

With stories that did involve some dispute, newspapers stood out for reflecting two or more sides of the story. Nearly 8 in 10 stories that involved a dispute or controversy of some kind (76%) contained a mix of opinions such that no one opinion made up more than two thirds of the story.

Presence of Multiple Viewpoints, Newspapers
(Based on stories with multiple viewpoints)

All
A1
Metro
Sports
Mix of Views
76%
82%
75%
55%
Mostly One View
10
9
9
14
All One View
15
9
15
31
Totals may not equal 100 because of rounding.

Just 10% contained only a passing reference to another view, and 15% contained only one view. What’s more, these percentages remained pretty consistent in wire and staff reporting, though there were some slight variations across circulation size.

This mix is similar to what was found on commercial network evening news where 72% offered a mix of views. Network morning news offered an even greater mix-86% of all stories. Cable news, however, was much more onesided. Just 25% of all stories studied offered a mix of views.

Number of Stakeholders

The third measure of reporting depth was how many different interested groups, or stakeholders, were mentioned or consulted in the story. Stakeholders are different from viewpoints in that different groups of stakeholders might share an opinion on a subject, though they arrived from a different starting place. Teachers and students, for instance, might largely agree on a school controversy, though they are clearly different stakeholders with different interests.

Here newspapers offered a good deal of depth, though some differences stand out between papers of different size. In 39% of all stories studied, journalists cited four or more stakeholders. Another 19% included three different stakeholders or interest groups; 32% contained two.

Just 10% of the stories over all contained only one stakeholder, and a disproportionate number of those (16%) were columns. When columns are excluded, the number of stories with four or more stakeholders rises to 40%.

Number of Stakeholders, Newspapers

All
A1
Metro
Sports
One
10%
6%
12%
14%
Two
32
21
32
44
Three
19
19
23
14
Four or more
39
54
32
28
Totals may not equal 100 because of rounding.

Looking just at front-page coverage, the depth is even greater. More than half (54%) of all front-page stories included four or more different stakeholders. At the largest papers, the share grew to nearly three-quarters of all front-page stories (73%). (Smaller papers were less likely to cite four or more stakeholders on page 1 – just 39% – but still, only 10% of their coverage contained just one.) Lead stories for the online sites studied were similar to front pages in this regard, with 56% including four or more different stakeholders.

Stories on the metro section fronts varied more, with 31% including two viewpoints, 23% offering three and 32% containing four or more. But here again, large papers stand out as offering more depth. Fully 54% of their metro section-front stories contained four or more stakeholders, compared to just 28% for the smallest papers and 26% for mid-sized.

The sports section-front, perhaps wrapped up in the “us versus them” mentality of games, was most likely to offer two stakeholders (44%).

Journalist Opinion in the News

Finally, the study this year also examined the degree to which stories included outright opinion from the journalist. A growing question in journalism concerns the level of subjectivity that now exists, the sense that the line between news and opinion has blurred. In this report, as in past studies, we have made a distinction between coverage in which a journalist’s interpretation can be attributed to reporting he or she has done, and interpretation or opinion that cannot. The latter category forces the audience to assume that the interpretation is the journalist’s alone.

What percentage of newspaper stories contained journalistic opinion that was not explicitly attributed to any sourcing or reporting?

In all, 85% of newspaper stories contained no such journalistic opinion. Among news stories, with columns removed, the number rises to 92%. (Even 17% of the columns attributed whatever opinions were expressed to cited reporting).

Are some sections more likely to contain opinion than others? The answers are what one would expect. Sports section fronts are more likely to contain journalists’ opinions. Part of this is due to personal columns, but even if columns are removed, these pages are still more speculative.

The front pages are less likely to contain opinion, but the more interesting finding is the differences here among papers of different sizes. Fully 13% of the A1 stories in the biggest papers contained journalistic opinion, compared with just 3% in papers in both the middle-sized and the smallest papers.

In the other measurements of depth, remember, large papers stood out as being on the top of the group – offering a greater range of viewpoints, a greater number of stakeholders. This finding suggest that perhaps along with deeper reporting comes the belief that the reporter’s views are worth adding to the mix.

Some might suspect another possible explanation to be the smaller papers’ greater reliance on wire copy. And in fact, stories from the wires were less likely over all than staff-written stories to contain opinion from journalists – 9% of wire stories, 16% of staff-written. But that was due to largely opinionated columns which were usually staff-written. Large papers carried almost no straight wire copy on their section fronts (less than 1%), versus nearly a third (32%) of reportage at the smallest papers and 15% at mid-sized papers.

But if we remove all wire copy and look only at staff-written pieces, the smallest papers still stand out as the least likely to contain opinions from the journalists (7% versus 21% at the largest papers and 17% at mid-sized).

Journalists’s Opinion on the Front Page, by Circulation Size

All
Large Circ.
Medium Circ.
Small Circ.
No Opinion
94%
86%
97%
97%
Opinion Present
6
13
3
3
Totals may not equal 100 because of rounding.

The Reporting Index

So how likely are newspaper stories to have it all, to reach what might be called a top level of sourcing and depth? To answer this we created a Reporting Index that combined transparency of sources, a mix of viewpoints and multiple stakeholders. To be included stories had to meet the following conditions:

1. Four or more transparent sources
2. A mix of viewpoints
3. Four or more stakeholders

In all, 18% of all applicable stories reach the highest level on the Reporting Index.

But that number changes dramatically by section and by circulation. On the front pages, fully 33% reach the highest Reporting Index level. The figure rose even higher to 52%, more than half of the stories among the largest papers. As circulation size decreases, so does the percentage of high-level stories, finally reaching just 15% among the smallest papers.

Sports stories were the least likely to meet the three-tier threshold. Just 4% of all sports stories qualified, 12% among the largest papers and 2% among the smallest.

Coverage on the metro section-fronts fell in the middle. These stories were half as likely as A1 stories to meet the reporting index – 16% of all metro stories.

Frame

Beyond topic, the project this year also looked at how journalists approached each topic, or the way they framed the story.

Did they build stories around conflict, consensus, how readers can take action, winners and losers – or is there no clear thematic or narrative frame to the story, more of a here’s what happened yesterday, straight-news account?

While a wide range of frames appeared, some were more common than others.

Looking just at news stories (excluding columns), more than a third, 36%, had no narrative frame. Most were simply written in the inverted pyramid style; they described what happened yesterday, offering a grab bag of facts that did not fall into any clear narrative theme.

After that, the most common frame was a feature style, wherein the writer told a good yarn. This approach characterized 12% of news stories.

After that, three frames appeared regularly – building stories around a conflict of some kind, building stories around winners and losers, and building stories around explaining how things got to this point and where they would go from here. Each of these made up 10% of all news stories.

Interestingly, readers were more than twice as likely to find stories framed around conflict as around consensus – 10% versus 4%. Just 7% focused on identifying a problem that needed solving, or something that wasn’t working. Only 3% reported how readers could do something, take action – news you can use.

The biggest difference between circulation groups – for both news stories and columns – was that smaller papers were more likely to write stories with no thematic or interpretative frame. The smaller papers used the inverted pyramid in close to half of all stories (44%), as against only 30% at mid-sized publications and just over a fourth, 26%, at the largest papers. This may go hand in hand with the finding that larger papers were more likely to include journalistic opinion.

Frame of Newspaper Stories by Section Fronts, 2004

All
A1
Metro
Sports
Conflict
10%
15%
13%
1%
Consensus
4
6
4
1
Winners and/or Losers
10
7
3
22
Prob. Needs Solving
7
9
10
2
Good Yarn
13
10
14
17
Audience Participation
3
2
6
1
How We Got Here
10
11
9
11
Reality Check
4
7
3
2
Underlying Principles
1
1
*
*
Other/Mutliple Frames
5
7
5
5
No Frame
33
27
34
39
Totals may not equal 100 because of rounding.

The study also isolated the two big stories of the year, the election and the war, for further study.

What did we find?

The U.S. Election

U.S. election stories accounted for 9% of all front-page stories, and 13% among the biggest papers.

Journalists’ views were more likely to be included; 18% of political coverage contained at least one opinionated assertion from the journalist, versus 15% of coverage over all and 6% of front-page coverage.

Big Stories: International War on Terrorism

The second big story of the year was the war on terrorism in Iraq (and to a much lesser degree in Afghanistan), which accounted for 17% of front-page stories, 7% of all news stories and 1% of all section-front columns.

Iraq coverage was a source of contention all year. Some conservatives, including some in the Bush administration, complained that press coverage was too negative. Was there evidence to confirm that charge?

The answer is more complicated than one might expect. Stories about the Iraq war were more negative (31%) than positive (23%). Yet they were also just as likely to be neutral in tone (33%). And another 12% were multi-subject stories for which tone did not apply. To derive tone, we first identified whether the story was about a particular newsmaker or issue. If so, each quote, innuendo, and assertion was counted as positive, negative or neutral for the story’s main newsmaker, or in the case of an issue story, about moving toward resolution of the central issue.

For stories to be considered positive or negative, one attitude must dominate by at least 2 to 1. In other words, if a story contains four positive statements, it must then contain at least eight negative statements to be considered negative in tone, and no more than two negative statements to be considered positive in tone. In all other cases, the story would be labeled neutral.3

Thus the notion that coverage of the war, in print at least, was decidedly negative, accentuated the bad news and ignored the good, is not clearly borne out in the numbers. The criticism, the data finds, is unsubstantiated. What is also interesting is that in newspapers at least, stories that did carry a negative tone were three times as likely to be issue stories rather than stories about a person. In other words, the negative stories were not pointed plainly at Bush or the administration.

Beyond tone, what do the numbers tell us about coverage of the war in Iraq?

Footnotes

1. For newspapers over 750,000, we included four papers: USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. (The Wall Street Journal, which also falls into this circulation category, was excluded as a specialty publication.)

2. In the network chapter the analysis of story origination is as a percent of all time. Here, for the sake of comparison to newspapers, it as appears as a percent of all stories.

3. This is different from the tone coding done by some other researchers. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, for instance, codes every assertion separately and then tallies them all up at the end to create percentages of positive and negative assertions. In coverage of a certain person or event, this suggests, the assertions were thus positive to this percentage point or negative to this percentage point. We believe the critical the unit of measurement is the story. This is how news is consumed, story by story, not assertion by assertion, and impressions formed. This is closer also to how journalists think of things – whether a story is hard-hitting, down the middle or positive. This approach of ours also has a higher threshold. For a story to be positive or negative, it has to be decidedly and manifestly so – with statements in that direction outweighing all others by 2 to 1 or more.

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