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A Day in the Life of the Media – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

May 11, 2005 was not what most people would call an extraordinary day. A warm spell moved through the Northwest into the South. Rain pelted the Rust Belt, and it was still cold in the East.

In the capital, Congress debated the appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the U.N. The Bush administration continued to press plans to revise Social Security. Amtrak officials tried to sort out what was causing cracks in the Acela trains between Washington and Boston. The actor Macaulay Culkin testified at Michael Jackson’s molestation trial. In a small town called Zion, Ill., the police charged an ex-convict named Jerry Hobbs with murdering his 8-year-old daughter and her friend.

Abroad, a series of terrorist car bomb attacks in Iraq killed 79, the culmination of four weeks of escalating violence. North Korea claimed to have removed fuel rods from nuclear reactors that could be used for nuclear weapons. Hundreds in Afghanistan protested after reports, little noticed yet in the U.S., that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran.

In 2005, Americans could turn to the widest array of media outlets in history, a combination of 19th century print outlets, 20th century radio and TV outlets, and 21st century Web sites and blogs — each of them trying to distill and order events into an account of the day.

Prior years of this report examined a representative sample month of news to get a broad picture of the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of different media. But it was impossible to see how an individual event was covered up close, to get a feel beyond the numbers. To do that, we decided this year to monitor A Day in the Life of the News, to examine in detail what audiences got over 24 hours from a wide range of news media at the national and local level online, on radio, on television and in print.

What would Americans learn from one medium versus another, and what would they not? How do stories come and go over a few hours? As citizens make their daily news choices, where could they go for certain kinds of information versus others? To the extent that a single day offers clues, what would a sensible and varied news diet look like?

Among the findings:

  • What people learn depends heavily on where they go for news. The medium may not be the message, but it no doubt influences it. In print, online and on the network evening newscasts this day, violence in Iraq, a false alarm in Washington, and protests in Afghanistan were the top stories. On cable and morning news, the trial of Michael Jackson and the Illinois murder case were played higher. On local TV and radio, weather, traffic and local crime dominated — and that was an altogether different definition of local than one finds in print. As the media fragments nowadays, consumers must choose strategically to get a complete diet. The notion of relying on a single or primary source for news — one-stop shopping — may no longer make sense.
  • When audiences did encounter the same story in different places, often they heard from a surprisingly small number of sources. Every network morning show and cable program covered the story about a security scare involving President Bush by interviewing the same lone person, a security expert from Citibank.1 (A grenade, which did not explode, had been found near the site where Bush made a speech in Tbilisi, Georgia.) The murder in Illinois was similarly covered in national broadcast news mainly by interviewing the local prosecutor. More coverage, in other words, does not always mean greater diversity of voices.
  • The incremental and even ephemeral nature of what the media define as news is striking. Few of what would emerge as the top stories this day would be remembered months later — or even, a search of data bases reveals, get much coverage within a day or two. And the efforts to add context to some ongoing stories were inhibited by speed, space and journalistic formula, especially on television. Journalism has always leaned toward the transitory and incremental over the systemic — news that breaks rather than news that bends. The older part of the 24-hour-news system — cable news — seems to have exaggerated this with a fixation on immediacy. It is less clear which way the Internet leans. Some online sites, particularly the Web aggregators, seem to be moving toward the ephemeral. Yet others, including some TV sites, may move the other way, toward collecting deeper reports than they offer now. And the arrival of citizens into the mix seems to push further toward more significant or longer-term issues. The blogosphere may have been the platform least focused on the immediate of any that we monitored.
  • While the news is always on, there is not a constant flow of new events. The level of repetition in the 24-hour news cycle is one of the most striking features one finds in examining a day of news. Google News, for instance, offers consumers access to some 14,000 stories from its front page, yet on this day they were actually accounts of the same 24 news events. On cable, just half of the stories monitored across the 12 hours were new. The concept of news cycle is not really obsolete, and the notion of news 24-7 is something of an exaggeration.

To study a day in the life in the media, we picked a universe to be representative of a broad swath of what Americans can choose from. It included three national newspapers, the three primary cable news channels, the three major commercial broadcast networks, PBS, seven news Web sites, seven prominent blogs, and a wide cross-section of TV, radio, newspapers, and ethnic and alternative media in three American cities, Houston, Milwaukee, and Bend, Ore. The result was a study that included 2,125 stories in 57 outlets and 48 hours of programming on radio and television, all offered in a single day, May 11, 2005—plus 112 different blog postings. (Newspapers were coded for the following morning, May 12. For the full list of outlets, please see the methodology.)

To what extent did any of what we saw reflect more than this one day? The results, it turns out — about topics covered, sourcing, and more, in each medium — closely mirror what we have found in these media and others for the last two years, when we took randomly constructed months of news for each, analyzed them by topic and broke down the reporting.

The Media Culture: a Loose Typology

If different media offer distinctly different news agendas, what did we find about each in our study of May 11?

Online : “The Internet,” we found, describes a technology, not a style of media or a set of values or even a journalistic approach. The seven news Web sites we monitored varied widely — from Google’s emphasis on speed and bulk to Yahoo’s focus on navigability to a local TV news station’s site, largely a portal for advertising copy. Many of the most popular sites also remain largely a stepchild of print and wire-service content, especially the so-called Internet-only sites that produce no copy of their own. As a result, while the Internet has added more outlets from which to choose, it has not, our study suggests, added new topics to the agenda.

Ultimately, it still seems unclear what online news will come to represent. Will it be constant updating, focusing on being fast and first? Or more depth, as sites are freed from the confines of space and time? Will online journalism come to mean multi-media convergence, including downloading sound and pictures to PDAs and phones? Or a worrisome intermingling of advertising and editorial? Or will online journalism move toward more citizen voices, more communication with the audience, and more opinion? In the seven sites studied we found all of the above, but none of it all in one place. Two of the most innovative sites we encountered, interestingly, were from old media, a TV network (CBS) and a mid-sized metropolitan newspaper (the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

Blogs : If the media culture needs navigators, by day’s end the seven popular blogs we studied would offer that — to an extent. As the hours went by, the bloggers sifted through the content of the mainstream media and noted what they deemed important, curious, absent, interesting or objectionable. But contrary to the charge that the blogosphere is purely parasitic, we also found new topics here, and new angles on old ones. Indeed, the blogs were generally less concerned than many traditional journalists with the latest breaking news, and more focused on long-term issues. Yet there was little here that a journalist would call reporting or even sourcing. Only 1% of the posts this day involved a blogger doing an interview, and only another 5% involved some other kind of original research, such as examining documents. There is no summary of the news to be had here. The blogs ultimately are idiosyncratic. It is not citizen journalism in any traditional sense, but something closer to a stylized citizen media forum, often with an insider’s tone and its own nomenclature.

Cable News : Up close, the striking thing about much of cable news, the first 24-hour medium, is a fixation with whatever is happening at the moment. The result is a good deal of repetition and a good deal that is ephemeral. The reporting, perhaps because of the time to fill rather than despite it, was shallowest by our indicators of any national media studied.

To a degree that we do not find on network TV, the three main cable news channels have also grown distinct from each other. Fox has built its appeal around trying to help its viewers put the news in some order — a conservative order — even if the production values are sometimes ragged. CNN is far more earnest, and tied to the immediate, and seems less sure what the difference is between its different programs. MSNBC, for its part, seems a different channel virtually from program to program — sometimes an extension of NBC News, sometimes something quite alien from its broadcast cousin. If there is a common thread between Don Imus in the morning, Chris Matthews in the evening and Keith Olbermann at night, it might be an effort at being ironic and glib.

Network : The contrast between the network nightly and morning news is so striking that the term network TV news almost seems a misnomer. It makes more sense to talk nightly news versus morning. The three evening newscasts were virtually identical to each other and very different from their network siblings in the morning.

A close look also suggests just how disadvantaged the traditional 30-minute evening newscasts are today. They are still trying to cover traditional hard news, but they are constrained by airing only once a day, by a newshole that is really 18 minutes, and by limited staff, which seems even more apparent when you look closely. People who want a quick, one-shot fill on the major national and international events of the day can still find that here, but within a set viewing times and brevity of a 30 minute program.

In the mornings, the luxury of an hour time slot makes a difference, but the news agenda is lighter and focused on emotion. Morning News and Features would probably be a more fitting title. Much, too, depends on the ability of two or three anchors to be experts in everything, prepared for everything, and charming all at the same time.

Newspapers : If ink on paper has an advantage, the day would suggest it is in the number of boots on the ground. This is the medium that is covering the most topics, has the deepest sourcing, explores the most angles in stories, and for now is supplying most of the content for the Internet. A reader also discovers probably the closest thing to a medium still trying to provide all the news a consumer might want, though perhaps in language and sourcing tilted toward elites. Looming, as readers inevitably shift to acquiring their news online, is the question of what happens to the more complete reporting that additional time affords. And how many boots will be left on the ground if the print editions that pay the bills continue to shrink.

Local TV : Local TV, at least in the three cities studied, focused on what news managers apparently thought people could use, traffic and weather, and what they were worried about, accidents and crime. Take out traffic, weather and sports, indeed, and half of all the newshole — and an even greater percentage of lead stories — was devoted to crime and accidents. But the bulk of what made up local news in print — issues like government, taxes, infrastructure and civic institutions — was relegated here to brief “tell” stories in the middle of the newscast. In style and format, the stations were strikingly similar, even across cities. The stories here were just the facts. There was little opinion, our statistical breakdown shows. But on average local TV news stories had the shallowest sourcing and explored the fewest angles of events covered of any medium studied except local radio.

Radio : Contrary to the notion that radio news is all syndicated national material, we found local radio news today to be very local — but also limited in scope. What listeners get is headlines read from wires, adapted from the newspaper, or provided by national networks. The stories are brief — almost always less than a minute and often less than 30 seconds. What depth of coverage we found came largely from talk show hosts offering opinions on issues or taking call-ins from listeners. But we found little in the way of reporters in the field, or what most journalists would consider reporting. Over all, just 14% of stories would involve field reports, and many were from syndicated network feeds. And the eight stations in three cities monitored this day are strikingly alike, in format and style.

Chronology of the Day:

The Early News — Waking up to Headlines

The news day begins awfully early. By 5 a.m., local radio has already entered its magic period, drive time. Those who tune in will get much the same thing in every city — except where the talk shows have already begun — a troika of headlines, traffic and weather. On KTRH in Houston, its news of a state tax bill, a metro rail crash, threats at a local school, a Vioxx trial. And contrary to the idea that radio is now all national syndication, half of all headlines this day are local. But anyone looking for in-depth reporting here won’t find much of it, in early drive time or later.

Local TV news is already on, too, and those who tune in are greeted this day with sirens, overnight homicides, weather maps and traffic cams. The few pieces with reporters are mostly about crimes or accidents — that metro rail crash in Houston, a double homicide in Milwaukee. The rest of the news is handled by anchors reading quick “tell” stories, just as on radio. What distinguishes local TV is that the weather and traffic coverage is the most detailed on any media studied.

Once to the front door, people who pick up the morning paper find a far broader scope of the news — this medium is still trying to offer the full menu — from complete sports to the full range of both national and local news. Even the smaller paper in Bend, Ore., features New York Times and Washington Post foreign coverage. Even if one has already listened to local radio, or caught the 15-minute news cycle on local TV, the stories here are more complete versions of the headlines they would have heard elsewhere. The New York Times and L.A. Times are giving big play to the default by United Airlines on its pension plans. In Houston, late night tax bill maneuvering by the state legislature is major news. Milwaukee, it’s election fraud and bumbling efforts by Marquette University to change the name of its sports teams.

And those who wander to a computer this early find basically the morning newspapers and wire services. Google’s lead story is about a “grenade found near Bush’s speech site,” from the English-language service of the Chinese news agency Xinhua. In most American papers the story is just a few paragraphs inside. Yahoo! is leading with the murder case in Zion, Ill., and the grenade near Bush. There is only minimal updating with overnight news — riots in Afghanistan and violence in Iraq — but they’re on the New York Times Web site as well.

7 a.m. : The network and cable morning

At 7 a.m., TV viewers get a major change in their news day when broadcast television shifts from local programming to network.

“Was the president’s life in danger?” Katie Couric asks as she opens NBC’s “Today,” television news’s longest-running weekday program. “The Secret Service investigates a grenade scare overseas.” The news agenda is decidedly different from what one was hearing on local news — and softer than what one gets online or in print. There is more emphasis on celebrity, lifestyle and consumer risk, and the crime, since it’s not local, tends to bend toward the lurid. The top stories in the first hour are whether the president’s life was in danger from that grenade (apparently it wasn’t), the grisly murder in Illinois (a story that would vanish in a couple of days), a woman killed in an amusement park accident (not covered elsewhere), a new ATM scam, a mistaken mastectomy, a new Rolling Stone tour, Nancy Reagan and interviews with the winners of CBS’s “Amazing Race.”

The tone is more informal than on local TV, too (rather than anchor desk, there are love seats and coffee mugs) and more emotional (words like “horrific” and “stunning” are used to set up stories and to conclude them).

For those who prefer cable news, the Fox and CNN morning shows are chatty and informal, too, but without the focus on emotion or lighter fare and with more politics. (CNN covers the grenade story and the murder, but also violence in Iraq and global warming. Fox airs a piece on a move in Congress for ID tags for immigrants and reports questions about homeland security alerts from that morning’s USA Today). To connect with viewers, apparently, the cable hosts this day offer their political opinions — conservative on Fox, liberal on CNN. “The Bush team criticized John Kerry for suggesting the war would cost $200 billion,” the CNN correspondent Andy Serwer says in a dig at the administration. “And, in fact, it’s costing $200 billion to date.” Adds the anchor Soledad O’Brien: “You’re right, and it will probably cost more.”

Those who dip into the blogosphere will find it is also already humming by 7 a.m. — the first posts came in as early as 1:18 a.m. EST (Eschaton), but the agenda here is more professorial and much more targeted than in the dreaded MSM. At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall this morning is worried about the current Senate debate on the filibuster rule. Eschaton is worrying about falling U.S. wages and Crooks and Liars is writing about a Baptist preacher ousted for political comments made to his congregation.

9 a.m. to Midday : The Waiting Game

By nine a.m., people are getting to work or settling into a quiet house and can go online or to cable news for the latest headlines. But there aren’t all that many new things to report. The North Korea and Iraq stories available at 7 a.m. have now been fleshed out with video and background links, especially on CBS News and CNN. (Those stories, incidentally, will carry through to the next day’s papers.)

The cable channels, meanwhile, are eagerly awaiting those top news stories they promised they would follow. The problem is there isn’t anything to report yet. Macaulay Culkin is expected to testify at Michael Jackson’s trial, but all we see are shots of the courthouse door he will walk through. The prosecutor in the Illinois murder is supposed to hold a press conference but it is delayed, and again and again we see shots of the mike stand where he is expected to speak.

Noon : Fifteen Minutes of Breaking News

Suddenly, at noon, news breaks out. The White House is being evacuated. So, moments later, are the Capitol and Supreme Court. For those getting online news alerts, or watching TV, the moment is scary. On cable, there are pictures of people running. “This is not a drill,” a policeman is heard yelling. A plane, we hear, has violated D.C. airspace.

In 15 minutes, it’s over. The plane was a single-engine Cessna gone off course that failed to respond to radio warnings. Finally, about a mile from the White House, the plane reacted to visual contact from Air Force jets. The whole business was a false alarm.

Yet CNN viewers would hear of virtually nothing else the rest of the day. For the next six hours, the news channel would veer from the plane scare just three times, once to brief on Culkin’s testimony in the Jackson trial, once for a quick update on Congress for “Inside Politics,” and briefly during the second half of Lou Dobbs’s business and economics show.

People going online after lunch, when Internet news sites get a surge in traffic around 1 p.m., would find the plane story dominating there, too, at least for a while. NYTimes.com would post at 3:20 p.m., with a more complete account. CNN.com would have updated twice. And Google, for some reason, would be featuring the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s account. On CBSNews.com the Jackson trial would already have supplanted the plane scare as the lead.

On local news as the afternoon moves on, what captivated the breathless narrators on CNN and the editors of national Web sites would be only a passing headline.

Listeners to local radio in Houston hear a few seconds on the incident before turning back to talk about divorce on KTRH. In Milwaukee , the subject quickly returns to Marquette’s nickname on WTMJ, and on WHBL in Sheboygan, Wis., to a beef between the mayor and police officers. As the day moves into drive time, traffic and weather become more important again. The same is true on local TV by mid-afternoon. At 5 p.m., the focus is on local news, and more traffic and weather. The stations in Houston are still leading with the aftermath of that traffic fatality the night before, with repeats of much of the video seen last night and early this morning. In Milwaukee, the story is Marquette’s nickname and a police union election.

And for denizens of the blogosphere, the transitory nature of the plane scare made it even less significant a topic. Here, the subjects ranged instead from a blogger convention in Nashville (Instapundit) to a terror alert on a British Airways flight (Little Green Footballs) to a headline in Google News about a Holocaust memorial (Powerline). The criteria of significance on the blogs, it seems, are not so tied to immediacy.

Network News and the Dinner Hour: The Evening Roundups

There was a time, a generation ago, when the news cycle was winding down by 6:30. It ended, except for late local news, after the network nightly newscasts carried their accounts of national and international events. The three news divisions had a monopoly over the video of these stories. Americans then waited until the morning newspapers if they wanted more details. That long ago ceased being the case, and the changeover accelerated in the last five years with the evolution of the Internet.

But 27 million Americans still tune in to see what the news operations of ABC, CBS and NBC say happened for the day, and on this night at least, it is the story that has dominated cable and the Internet. The D.C. plane scare is the lead story on all three programs, making up roughly the first five to six minutes. The networks try to offer something more than their new rivals — minute-by-minute chronologies and discussions about how the air security system works. But the reports, beyond the basic facts of the event, have a hasty and speculative quality. The authorities won’t say how the system works. Some think the evacuation was a gross overreaction. Others say the system works beautifully. It also mattered little this day which program one watched. The first 12 minutes of each covered the same stories — after the plane scare, violence in Iraq , then a follow on the United Airlines pensions. The stories that were major fare on cable and the network morning shows that day — the grenade story, the Zion murder and Michael Jackson — are largely skipped.

On PBS, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer offers viewers an altogether different news agenda of this day than they can find virtually anywhere else on television. After brief accounts in its news summary of the plane scare and violence in Iraq, the newscast focuses on the pension story, melting in the Arctic circle, and a background discussion on the fights in the Senate over judicial nominations that have intensified the political polarization in Washington. The segments are long, nine to 12 minutes, and the interviews often involve three experts, not one. The contrast is such that one wonders whether public broadcasting will try to expand into other parts of the day, as NPR has done on radio.

A Night in Cable News: Attitude, Opinion, and Irony

The national news day would once have ended now, but for cable viewers, in many ways, the heat is just turning on. Even more so than during the day, at night the cable news channels are quite varied as they counter-program off each other to maximize audience, one going with talk, another with news, another business, and then an hour later reshuffling the deck.

At 6:00 p.m., Fox’s most politics- and policy-focused program, “Special Report with Brit Hume,” gives its audience one of the more complete studies of the plane scare seen on TV this day. On MSNBC, the Washington “hardball” insider Chris Matthews (on the network’s top-rated show) tells viewers he loved a new book by a fellow GE employee, Tim Russert (it left him “crying”) and about a tribute that night to Nancy Reagan. CNN’s Lou Dobbs’s gives viewers more plane scare, plus a little on North Korean nuclear claims, riots in Afghanistan and Iraq car bombings.

There is no clear time slot for a signature evening newscast on cable, nor are there programs that really resemble them. On Fox, the evening news summary arguably is split between Hume and, an hour later, “The Fox Report with Shepard Smith.” On MSNBC, the closest thing viewers get is “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” where the subject is as much Olbermann’s take on the news as the news itself. He is telling viewers, among other things, about the plane scare (the coverage was overblown), a football player caught with a device called a Wizzonater (Olbermann raises his generous eyebrows over the name) which could help conceal drug use, and a Michael Jackson “Puppet Theater” he is auctioning off on eBay.

The audience for CNN’s evening summary newscast, meanwhile, “NewsNight with Aaron Brown” (since replaced by “Anderson Cooper 360”) learns all about the plane scare from five different angles — and there is no irony, thank you.

At some point during the evening viewers can get at least one talk show on each news channel. On Fox the No. 1 rated “O’Reilly Factor” is focused on an editorial in the Westchester County Journal News which, Bill O’Reilly says, is “true and dumb,” on the Macaulay Culkin testimony — “why should I care?” — and on the “continuing meltdown of the American criminal justice system.” On CNN, top-rated Larry King offers no opinions as he talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

By 9 p.m., users will find that online news Web sites have slowed down, even though this is prime time for overall traffic. CBSNews.com is still leading with that Jackson story. The New York Times has an updated account of the plane scare posted at 7 p.m. Click 2 Houston, the Web site of the NBC affiliate in town, where “Local News Comes First,” is still on that pickup truck that crashed into a metro rail train the night before. And Google is leading with the Reuters account for the next morning’s papers of the plane scare, followed, oddly, by a 7-hour-old account of that grenade incident from the Chinese news agency. The next day’s papers have not posted. That will come sometime closer to midnight.

In the blogosphere, some have signed off by 8 p.m. The others are offering opinions on one of their brethren’s experiences on the Michael Medved talk radio show (Eschaton), a Senate report on Iraqi oil allocations (Power Line), and a blogger getting “overly exercised” about Bush’s recent comments about Yalta (Instapundit).

The news cycle won’t end, but people eventually do go to sleep. Their news cycle ends. For some, it will come after the local news.

Jon Stewart, the last word

For others, it may come with a different accounting of the day from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Stewart, whose program airs on Comedy Central but is a source of news for many of its viewers, opened his show, like the network newscasts, with the Cessna that flew into restricted D.C. air space. But rather than focusing on whether policy makers did or didn’t do the right thing, or how big a story this was or wasn’t, the Daily Show focused on something viewers might have noticed. “The important thing is in the three-and-half years since 9-11 we have made tremendous progress in dealing with these situations,” Stewart says. “A new strategy has been implemented. It worked to perfection today. It’s called (pause) run for you lives.”

The show also turns its attention to North Korea and its weapons program, another major story in the media culture this day, and his target here is just how fuzzy the official estimates seemed to be about how many weapons North Korea might be able to make.  “Ahhh, half-dozenish, 10 million casualties give or take, you know.” There is rant from Comedian Lewis Black, a “This Week in God Segment” and an installment of “Great Moments in Punditry as Read by Children.”

After a day in which many Americans may have been exposed to images, bits of news, earnest commentators, alarmist codewords, pompous newsmakers and maybe pompous news providers, a sense of absurdity can come to mind. The Daily Show articulates that.

Conclusion

In the end, one does draw some conclusions about the different media — what they offer and what they do not. None excel at everything. And there are few, if any, news consumers who rely on only one of these outlets anymore.

The Day in the Life of the News offers two warnings, as well. Consuming the news continuously does not mean being better informed. There is too much repetition, and too much confusion. The most efficient diet means finding the right mix depending on the time of the day, the nature of the news that day, and more. The wrong mix may prove to be a waste of time, the one thing consumers can never get back.

Footnotes

1. This story count includes every channel that aired a segment about the incident. Brief anchor reads of a headline about the incident were excluded.

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