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A Year in the News – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Two overriding, continuing stories took turns dominating headlines in 2007. As the year began, the increasingly bloody Iraq war and the fierce political debate over war strategy drove intensive coverage of the conflict. And the launch of Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacies at the outset of the year triggered aggressive coverage of the earliest-starting campaign in U.S. history.

Broadly speaking, the stories had reverse trajectories. By the end of the year, with the surge deemed largely to be working and President Bush in control of war policy, coverage of the Iraq conflict diminished considerably — with coverage of the political debate dropping more sharply than news of events on the ground. And with the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary drawing near, coverage of the campaign swelled.

Taken together, the two continuing story lines — war and a presidential election — consumed a large portion of the media’s energy and resources, and nearly a third of the overall newshole in PEJ’s analysis of the news media. Factor that in with the broader trends affecting the news industry — economic retrenchment, staffing cuts and recalibrated ambitions — and 2007 became a year notable for the narrowness of the news agenda, defined almost as much by what wasn’t covered as what was.

For 2007, PEJ offers a more in-depth, comprehensive analysis of news coverage than ever before. It examines coverage every weekday for the entire year in 48 media outlets and five media sectors, as well as Sunday newspapers. More than 70,000 stories were examined. The results offer what we believe to be an unprecedented view of what the mainstream media delivered in 2007 as well as insights into the priorities, tendencies and trends that helped define the news agenda. Among the key findings are:

A Narrower News Agenda:

News consumers may have had more choices than ever for where to find news in 2007, but that does not mean they had more news to choose from. The news agenda for the year was, in fact, quite narrow, dominated by a few major general topic areas. Together, coverage of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. politics and elections accounted for almost one-third of the overall newshole for the year. It gets even narrower if we look at the specific news stories that drove coverage in each of those topic areas. Year-long coverage of the 2008 Presidential campaign pre-empted most political attention. And coverage of U.S. foreign policy topic was dominated by the war in Iraq and the debate over war strategy.

The third-biggest topic area in 2007 (11%) involved foreign events not directly related to U.S. actions. But these, too, rather than broadening the news agenda, point to a narrow range of coverage. First, Iraq and the two other areas of anti-terrorism concern — Iran and Pakistan — accounted for more than a quarter of that coverage. And another chunk of that foreign coverage involved one-time events, man-made and natural disasters such as plane crashes and hurricanes, lifestyle, science, celebrity, crime, and even lingering questions about the death of Princess Di. These stories ranged from the damage caused by Hurricane Dean in Mexico and parts of the Caribbean to the introduction of a group of baby pandas in China.

In short, an examination of the reporting finds that less than half of the foreign coverage that was not about the United States directly was concerned with what we might consider geopolitical foreign matters, diplomacy, internal affairs, etc.

Most Covered Topics Across All Media
2007
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007
Top 10 Stories for all Media, Overall
2007
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007
All other stories were less than 1.5% for the year
Newshole is defined as the time or space available in an outlet for news content

Topics by Media Sector

2007
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

A Limited Domestic Agenda:

In 2007, we learned that many of children’s toys were unsafe as were a dismaying number of food products that needed to be removed from supermarket shelves. A landmark energy bill passed that set new fuel economy standards for the automotive industry for the first time in more than three decades. A heated battle erupted in Congress over a plan to expand health insurance for children.

Yet an examination of the mainstream news agenda in 2007 reveals that a broad range of domestic subjects was given limited attention by the media. And at least in theory, these stories were logistically much easier to report on than the Mideast or North Korea.

The half-dozen broad topic areas that generated the least coverage last year included development and urban sprawl, the legal and court system, religion, transportation, education, and race, gender and sexual identity issues. None of these attracted more than 1% of the coverage over all.

Least Covered Domestic Issues
Percent of Newshole

Topic
Education
1.0%
Transportation
0.8
Religion
0.7
Court/Legal System
0.4
Development/ Sprawl
0.2

These lesser-covered subjects do have something in common. Matters of religion, gender and race relate to the social underpinnings of the culture and the way people feel about their daily lives. Similarly, development, transportation and education relate to institutional underpinnings of daily life. Broadly speaking, they are the bread and butter subjects that most people deal with on a constant basis. Why weren’t these subjects a more significant part of the news diet in 2007?

They are also subjects that normally bend rather than break. In other words, education, religion, infrastructure are vital factors in our lives, but they are slow-moving trends. They are news that bends. This kind of news requires more continuous attention to be able to understand and explain incremental changes along the way or to know when the small changes have added up to something more comprehensive — specialists, beats, sentinels assigned to watch. Many news organizations have cut back on staff devoted to specific beats like these.

Also, news that breaks, such as car crashes or explosions, generates more immediate news appeal, often involving strong visuals or attention-grabbing headlines.

Government Gets Short Shrift:

The extensive attention to the Washington-based debate over Iraq war policy and the battle for the White House also in some ways crowded out other news occurring inside the halls of the U.S. government in 2007.

In 2007, coverage of government filled 6% of the overall newshole in the five media sectors studied. That includes such areas as legislative debate over immigration, domestic anti-terrorism policy and the activities of the new Democratic-led Congress, which was the third-biggest story (at 6%) for the month of January 2007, when the new legislators took office with what many believed was a mandate to end the Iraq war.

How does that level of government coverage compare with past efforts? While this is the first year the Project has mounted such a comprehensive look at the media, the number, while not unprecedented, is lower than in recent years. In 2003, also a year before a presidential election, coverage of government accounted for 16% of the stories on the three commercial nightly television newscasts. In 2007, the comparable number was 5%. (The number was considerably higher a few decades ago, 37% in 1977 and 32% in 1987). On cable in 2003, government news made up 29% of the cable airtime. In 2007 government accounted for 7 % of the airtime on the cable programs studied. There are very likely a number of factors at play in the 2007 figures, not all driven by press choices. The excitement over the election and the intensity of the debate over Iraq policy were clearly bigger stories than they were four years earlier. Further, the lack of media coverage may in part reflect the lack of activity of a lame duck Bush administration, which, beyond thwarting the Democrats over the war and failing on its immigration plans, did not press much of an agenda in 2007.

Finally, as we see with coverage of domestic issues, the drop in government coverage may reflect newsroom resources — a diminished capacity of the press to cover multiple Washington-focused stories.

Consider for instance that on CBS News, White House correspondent Jim Axelrod has also been assigned to cover the Hillary Clinton campaign for president. Or that when the Washington bureau of the Copley News Service was recently cut back, those departing included Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer, staffers who had won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the bribery case that led to the resignation of Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the California Republican who is now in prison for accepting bribes.

One of the other biggest government stories of the year was the firing of U.S. attorneys, which led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and filled 1% of the newshole for the year. But early on in 2007, it was actually the work of a blogger, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, that connected the crucial dots on the case while much of the mainstream press either failed to grasp its importance or was preoccupied elsewhere. (Marshall was later honored with the George Polk Award for Legal Reporting for essentially scooping the mainstream press on this story.)

A Limited Diet of Global News:

The year 2007 was the deadliest for American forces in Afghanistan since that war began in 2001. The U.S. reached a historic agreement on nuclear weapons with North Korea, a one-time member of what President Bush called “the Axis of Evil.” In November, about 50 countries gathered in Annapolis, Md., to start the most intensive Mideast peacemaking effort in years.

Yet, when one examines coverage of the world in 2007, it was dominated by only three geopolitical hot spots. Foremost was the war in Iraq, which accounted for nearly one-sixth of the overall coverage examined when you factor in all three story threads — the Washington-based political debate, the situation inside Iraq and the impact of the war on the U.S. homefront.

The second overseas crisis to generate notable attention was Iran, which finished as the fifth-biggest individual story of the year. But the most extensive spurts of coverage did not directly involve simmering U.S.-Iran tensions. Major spikes stemmed from the March 2007 hostage drama in which Iran temporarily detained 15 British sailors. Another big week of coverage occurred during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York, a trip that included a highly contentious appearance at Columbia University.

The other hotspot was Pakistan, a crucial but unstable ally in U.S. anti-terrorist efforts, which was rocked by internal turmoil. The return from exile and the subsequent assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December generated more focused coverage that made Pakistan the ninth-biggest single story line of the year.

Yet, other than these three related stories — Iraq, Iran and Pakistan — coverage of the numerous international crises and events around the globe, some that clearly involved crucial U.S. interests, was modest in 2007. The war in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the arms negotiations with North Korea, the civilian deaths in Darfur, and growing tensions between Washington and Moscow were among the major global events of the year that generated neither sustained coverage nor even intense short-term interest in the U.S. media.

Taken separately, each of the following foreign stories accounted for one-half of one percent or less of all coverage: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (0.5%), nuclear negotiations with North Korea (0.4%), the violence in Darfur (0.2%) and deteriorating U.S. relations with Russia (0.2%).

Afghanistan, where American troops are fighting, made up less than 1% of coverage (0.9%)

Arguably, no country in 2007 might have commanded as much regular media attention as China, whose growing economy makes it the emerging global power. Yet in 2007, the China-related story that got the most media attention was the recall of products and toys. And even that fell well shy of filling 1% of the newshole.

The lack of broad and deep international coverage is probably a function of several interrelated factors. The war in Iraq has soaked up much of the journalistic energy and resources in the past five years. And the general trend in the news business toward cost-cutting and staff-reduction has meant an overall retreat from coverage around the world.A February 2007 article in the Washington Post on the “demise of the foreign correspondent” reported that the number of foreign-based newspaper reporters dropped about 25% between 2002 and 2006.

Yet another factor may be the public’s lack of interest in overseas stories, which has been measured in the 2007 News Interest Index surveys. (See section on the coverage divide.)

Differences By Media:

There were some notable differences in news judgment among the media sectors, both in terms of subject matter covered and the diversity or breadth of the news. (Each of the sectors is analyzed at a deeper level in their own subchapters that follow. Here we discuss their broad differences in news agenda.)

One key finding in 2007 is that the platforms that offered the widest variety of coverage were two traditional media sectors, newspapers and network television.

One way to measure this diversity is to see whether coverage was widely dispersed or concentrated in several key areas. How much space, for instance, did each media sector devote to their three biggest topics? Network television and newspaper front pages devoted the least (38% and 39%, respectively). The number was substantially higher in radio (43%), cable (48%) and among the top stories online (55%). Conversely, newspapers and network television had the highest number of topic areas (13 and 12, respectively) that filled about 3% of the newshole or more.

There were also significant differences in the smaller topic areas. Only newspapers included business coverage and health and medical stories among their top priorities. Broadcast network news offered the most coverage of disasters and accidents, such as the Minnesota bridge collapse and Southern tornadoes. Cable television news, with its demand for live-event coverage, devoted the most time by far to crime coverage. Radio proved to be the most self-absorbed sector, making coverage of the media itself one of its top coverage areas. (Much of that reflected talk radio’s fascination with the April 2007 firing of longtime radio host Don Imus over racially crude remarks.)

Each sector had its own characteristics that shaped content choices. Newspapers and network television, the two platforms that offered the broadest news agenda, have historically attracted the largest audiences and have been most willing to invest in reporting resources. Cable television and radio, the two sectors that offer the highest doses of political coverage, are home to the ideologically driven talk shows that tend to hammer away at the biggest and most divisive issues in the country on a daily basis.

The most distinct sector in 2007 was online. The Web sites studied by PEJ consistently displayed the most interest in the rest of the world and the least interest in covering U.S. domestic politics. Not only did coverage of foreign policy and geopolitics make up almost half of the online newshole in 2007, but the leading broad topic category also featured international events that did not primarily involve the U.S. Why would the online sector offer by far the largest selection of international news? One conceivable explanation is that the Internet has the largest reach and is the medium that most easily crosses borders and continents.

It is also true that as a platform that often specializes in news aggregation and collection, many Web sites can cover the world without incurring the substantial expenses of overseas reporting.

The One-Week Wonders: Big Stories That Quickly Vanish

When the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people, the tragedy quickly commandeered major cable coverage and dominated the news for several days. All told, it accounted for one-quarter of that week’s news coverage, making it the eighth-biggest single-week story of 2007.

After the rescue and recovery operations ended, the bridge collapse provided the press with a chance to focus attention and examine the state of road, bridge and tunnel infrastructure in American society, something that we have heard for years may have suffered because of changes in government priorities.

Did the bridge disaster lead to that kind of coverage?

For about a week after the disaster, coverage focused almost solely on the casualties and cleanup. And aside from the occasional story making a connection between funding priorities and bridge safety, the infrastructure angle went largely unexplored. Instead, coverage of the tragedy quickly petered out, dropping to 6% the week after the accident and then down to 1% the following week.

The bridge catastrophe was just one of a number of stories in 2007 that were big events that flashed across the media landscape and then vanished almost instantly, with less follow-up than one might have expected. They were one-week wonders.

Top 15 Single-Week Stories
2007
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

The event that generated the most coverage in any single week in 2007 was the April 16 massacre in which 33 were killed at Virginia Tech. That week, the tragedy accounted for more than half of all news coverage examined, the biggest story of the year in any given week. The media descended on the traumatized Blacksburg, Va., campus and after a few days, a student (or students) had constructed a sign that read “VT Stay Strong. Media Stay Away.”

In fact, the media coverage soon diminished notably. The week following the shooting, Virginia Tech accounted for only 7% of the newshole. By the end of April, it had virtually vanished from the media agenda. There was little follow-up on a number of story lines that seemed to emerge from the rampage, including the debate over gun control and the issue of identifying and treating troubled adolescents who display serious psychological problems, or the security and communications plans on college campuses and other schools when emergencies occur.

Other breaking events that were among the biggest weekly stories of 2007 followed a similar pattern. There was an intense outburst of spot coverage of the destructive Southern California wildfires in October that forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate their homes. It was the second-biggest story in any single week, accounting for 38% of the coverage. But the following week, as the fires came under control, coverage plummeted by about 90% and it virtually disappeared the week after that. The underlying issue raised by the fires, the spread of housing development to areas that are prone to such catastrophes did not generate significant follow-up.

The firing of Don Imus filled more than a quarter of the newshole in the week of April 8. But coverage plummeted to 1% the next week.

Not all of these stories might have called for the same level of examination and follow-up. (As it was, the Imus story was arguably carried further than it otherwise would have been by talk hosts who were obsessed by something that happened to one of their own.) But the fact that the Virginia Tech disaster and the bridge collapse failed to have real journalistic “legs” and to generate further substantive coverage seems more telling.

What explains this phenomenon, what some critics call hit-and-run journalism? Certainly, one factor seems to be the role of cable television news, particularly daytime cable news, with its relentless hunger for live breaking events is a crucial factor. Almost invariably, it is cable news that lavishes wall-to-wall attention on these big stories, giving them the sense of ubiquity and catastrophe.

On cable, for example, the Virginia Tech story filled three-quarters of the newshole that week, the most coverage by any media sector. Cable devoted half its time to the California wildfires the week that story broke and nearly half its time to the Imus firing and the Minneapolis bridge story. It is cable’s propensity to drop virtually the rest of the news agenda to focus almost exclusively on one event that helps create such mega-stories. Yet, cable’s short attention span and constant search for the next major headline can turn this week’s bombshell into next week’s afterthought.

Cable producers may imagine they have covered all angles of a breaking story while it is occurring. Yet that “do it all at once” approach may also lead to more repetition than depth. And it lacks the perspective that comes with time, even a week or two, to sort out the meaning and implications of events as the initial trauma and shock fade.

Other factors may be built into the nature of the news more generally. News is immediate, not so retrospective. And again one must also wonder about the connection to reporting resources. The one media sector that displayed a tendency to do more aggressive follow-up on these big stories was the newspaper industry, which, despite a recent history of cutbacks, still tends to produce more boots-on-the-ground reporting than other platforms and remains, by our estimates, at 90% of its peak staffing (See Newspaper News Investment).

Coverage That Divided the News Media From News Consumers:

For the first time, in 2007, the Project was able to examine whether the public agreed or disagreed with the media over what constituted important news. Each week, the News Interest Index survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked news consumers to describe their level of interest in the top stories as identified in the News Coverage Index. Several clear areas of disconnect emerged.

In the week of May 20-25, with the average price of gasoline spiking to $3.22 a gallon, 52% of those surveyed in the News Interest Index said they were following that issue very closely, the highest level of public interest for any story in 2007. Yet, at 4% of the newshole, the rising costs at the pump were only the sixth-biggest story of that week in the News Coverage Index. That represented the biggest disparity of the year in these two metrics between editors and the public, and it was a basic pocketbook issue, the cost of filling a gas tank.

Looking at stories that the public said they were most closely following, significant interest gaps emerged for several other news events — revelations that the dangerous staph “superbug” called MRSA was more common than previously thought, recalls of pet food, the troubled U.S. economy in the week that investor guru Warren Buffett said taxes on the rich were too low, and President Bush’s veto of the legislation intended to expand health insurance for children.

Public Interest vs. Media Coverage
2007
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

As was the case with many of the topic areas that got little coverage in the press, the common characteristic that defines these particular stories, including the spike at the gas pump, is that they speak to the nuts and bolts of daily existence, such as health and money. (See this section for more)

Conversely, there were some subjects that the media seemed far more interested in covering than the public said they were interested in following. These might be the stories that the media “over-delivered” in the year. A number of those stories involved events overseas. President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to declare a state of emergency in Pakistan, the Mideast peace summit meeting, the agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and the Lebanese Army’s battle with Islamic militants were all stories that generated more media attention than public interest.

Those results apparently reflect the public’s lack of interest in stories that, in fact, are getting only minimal coverage. So even as journalists seem to have little inclination to cover global events other than Iraq, news consumers still think they’re being oversaturated. There may be a chicken-and-egg effect here. If Americans really aren’t interested in global conflicts, the press has even less incentive to spend time and money on those stories.

One major overcovered story of the year, according to the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press surveys, was General David Petraeus’ Iraq progress report to Congress in September. Eagerly anticipated for months as a potential turning point in the battle for public opinion about the war, the report proved to be anti-climactic. Petraeus’ message was to stay the course, and by then President Bush had successfully beaten back congressional attempts to change American strategy in Iraq. The media hung on Petraeus’ every word and delivered the single biggest week of Iraq policy coverage. The public, only 14% of whom said that was the story they most closely followed that week, may have displayed the better grasp of the actual news value of the event.

The Mainstream Media Shun Tabloid Tales:

In 2007, not a single day seemed to pass without news of the public, or even private, indiscretions, of the troubled “girls gone wild” trio of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Celebrity DUIs and quick jaunts to rehab clinics felt like a staple of the news diet. No one could be blamed for thinking the press had been taken over by the paparazzi. In fact, the new TMZ syndicated television program is a celebrity show that often provides a paparazzi eye-view.

When assessing this torrent of info-tainment, one important question remains: Who is actually responsible for the coverage? Yes, the tabloid celebrity culture — fueled by US magazine, TMZ.com, Entertainment Tonight, cable news cameras, and an expanding array of “pap” media — grew bigger in 2007. But a closer look reveals that much of the mainstream media, as examined by PEJ, actually tended to give these stories a good leaving alone.

The broad topic of celebrity and entertainment was far down — at No. 16 — on the list of mainstream media priorities last year, filling only 2% of the overall newshole (behind, for example, coverage of the news media itself). Week after week, the red hot gossip specials — Spears’ bizarre head-shaving spree, Lohan’s drunk driving rap, the Rosie O’Donnell-Donald Trump feud, and Alec Baldwin’s venomous voicemail to his daughter — failed to gain any traction in the mainstream media, usually accounting for 1% or less of the week’s coverage.

Does this represent some diminishing interest in celebrity news in the mainstream media culture, particularly given the plethora of new specialized celebrity media? That is harder to answer at this point, but is something we can examine going forward.1

There were certainly scandals that attracted the media’s attention in 2007, but they were not strictly celebrity. Two of the biggest involved government officials. The U.S. attorney firings that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stayed in the news for much of the year and ended up as the 10th-biggest story of 2007. The arrest of Senator Larry Craig on charges that he solicited sex from an undercover police officer was the biggest story the week it broke. O. J. Simpson, now perhaps less of a celebrity than a serial criminal defendant, also generated major coverage with his Las Vegas arrest on armed robbery and kidnapping charges.

But only two classic celebrity scandals — those involving the charter members of the showbiz, nightlife and gossip column crowd — cracked the weekly list of top-10 stories in 2007.

For one week in early June, party girl/socialite Paris Hilton made major news, and it was largely for the strange set of circumstances in which she was released from jail early, quickly escorted from her home to court in a police vehicle and then sent sobbing back to jail by an angry judge. But other than that one spike in coverage, Hilton received minimal attention.

The other big celebrity tale made a considerably larger splash. The circumstances surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith, the former Playboy centerfold model, actress and heiress — and the ensuing court battles for custody of her body and infant daughter — became a much longer-running saga that ended up as the eighth-biggest story in the first quarter of 2007. In the interval from Smith’s death on February 8 to her burial on March 2, only two other stories — the debate over Iraq and the 2008 presidential race — generated more attention in than Smith’s demise.

But a deeper examination indicates that even what happened in the Smith case was a selective media feeding frenzy driven by the relentless coverage in only two media sectors. In the three weeks between her death and burial, the story consumed 22% of the cable news airtime studied and 15% of the coverage on the three broadcast network morning television shows. Much of the rest of the media treated it as an afterthought. For those who turned to radio, the Internet or newspaper front pages, the Smith story was a much smaller deal, not even reaching 5% of the newshole in any of those sectors. And a good deal of that coverage came on Feb. 8 or 9, when the news first surfaced of Smith’s mysterious death.

The travails of the rich and famous are a treasure trove for the tabloids, the TMZs and the television shows that focus on Hollywood. But when it comes to the bulk of the mainstream media, those stories tend to be treated as trivia in 2007.