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Content Analysis

Content Analysis

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In the first two years of this report, we analyzed the content of American news media by taking 28 randomly chosen days from a wide swath of news outlets and examining what was offered. What topics were covered? What kind of sourcing was there? How were stories framed? How did the various media differ?

This year, we wanted to take a closer look at what Americans get, how specific events are covered, and the style and personality of different media at different times of day. To do so, we examined a Day in the Life of the News, a microscopic look at the coverage of one day, May 11, 2005, nationally and in the local media in three American cities. We examined all kinds of outlets, from national newspapers and television to small suburban dailies, ethnic media, local radio, and blogs. How did stories come and go through the course of the day? How does where we get news influence what we learn? Does the time of day when we get the news matter? What advantage or disadvantage does time offer — waiting till the next morning or the end of the day? Where are the best places to go for certain kinds of information?

Among the findings of this study within a study, A Day in the Life of the News:

Most of the news is transitory and incremental and lacks much long-term consequence. Few of the top stories this day would continue to be covered even two or three days later.

Consumers might actually suffer from relying solely or even primarily on a single news source. Most media excel at certain kinds of information, and few excel at everything. Indeed, someone who watched cable news all day would tend to be less informed than if he or she charted a careful diet of sources that required less time.

When audiences did encounter the same story in different places, they often heard from a surprisingly small number of sources. Some stories on national television essentially relied on a single source, sometimes the same one on every channel. 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 its most striking features.