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Radio

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

One of the big events in the pre-primary phase of the presidential campaign was an October 30, 2007, debate in Philadelphia where then-frontrunner Hillary Clinton experienced the first concentrated attacks from her Democratic rivals.

In the media generally, according to the Project’s News Coverage Index, the campaign that week accounted for about one-sixth of all the news coverage, and much of that acknowledged the rough-and-tumble nature of that debate. The New York Times reported that Clinton came under “withering attack” on everything from “candor” to “electability.” “After getting punched around in Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton is still acting tough,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported.

But in the world of talk radio, the Philadelphia debate was the starter’s gun for something much bigger. The talkers devoted more than 40% of their airtime to the campaign that week. And for them, Clinton wasn’t just a combatant in that debate. She was the big loser.

“She’s blowing this big time… playing the gender card,” declared conservative host Rush Limbaugh, who was responding to complaints from the Clinton camp that her rivals had ganged up on her. Added conservative radio talker and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity: “Last night’s debate in Philadelphia may soon become known as the great Hillary debacle.” Clinton even got whacked by syndicated liberal host Ed Schultz, who accused her of “whining.”

In many ways, the Philadelphia encounter was a classic example of how talk radio operated, at least in 2007, according to an examination of the top talk radio shows throughout the year.

One clear finding of this examination is that the major personalities in the medium tend to seize on a few major news events each week and amplify them for their own purposes. Many weeks, the top stories in the media generally are roughly twice as big in the talk radio universe.

Generally, those events are then run through an ideological filter and used to create a narrative about good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. That process is fairly similar among both liberal and conservative hosts. It is, at its core, a medium of three P’s–personality, persuasion and polarization.

These are just some of the findings of this study, which included almost 220 hours of talk radio content from 2007, some 4,100 different segments, from five of the leading hosts on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

Among other findings:

In its modern incarnation in the past two decades, talk radio has been a business dominated by conservative voices. While that is still true, liberals have begun to make their mark in the industry in recent years, and the 2004 launch of the Air America network, despite its problems, appears to have helped. As part of its weekly News Coverage Index in 2007, the Project examined the first 30 minutes of the programs from the three conservative talk hosts with the biggest audiences according to Talkers Magazine — Rush Limbaugh (estimated 13.5 million listeners a week), Sean Hannity (12.5 million) and Michael Savage (8 million.) On the Democratic side, the Project looked at two leading liberal hosts, Ed Schultz (3.25 million) and Randi Rhodes (1.5 million).

Talk Radio’s Amplification

The most striking characteristic of talk radio is its tendency for hosts to seize on the news and amplify those events. The hosts might suggest they are analyzing them, or offering a deeper level of clarity and truthfulness. Critics might suggest the hosts are not so much reporting the news as exploiting it.

Whatever one’s view, talk radio tends to amplify the handful of stories best suited to debate and division. Typical was the week of May 13-18, 2007, when several important events — Congressional votes on Iraq war funding, the death of Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, the immigration bill, the second Republican presidential debate, and a deadly ambush in Iraq — were all part of the five leading stories in the mainstream media. Each one consumed between 5% and 10% of the newshole and together, they constituted 40% of the week’s overall coverage.

Top 5 Stories for the Week of May 13-18, 2007
Percent of Newshole
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

On the radio talk shows, however, just three of those stories — the Iraq policy debate, the campaign and immigration — consumed 50% of the airtime. Many of the other stories of the week got short shrift.

That same trend is evident over time. The top-two broad topic areas in talk radio in 2007 — elections/politics and the media — by themselves filled 44% of the airtime studied over the year. They made up 16% of the overall press coverage.

Four topics accounted for nearly two-thirds of all the time on talk radio — politics/elections, media, U.S. foreign policy and government — about 60% more than they did in the media generally.

Top Broad Story Topics: Talk Radio vs. Media Overall
Percent of Newshole

Talk Radio Media Overall
Election/ Politics 28% U.S. Foreign Affairs 17%
Media 16 Elections/Poltics 13
U.S. Foreign Affairs 12 Foreign (Non U.S.) 11
Government 8 Crime 7
Crime 4 Government 6
Immigration 4 Disasters/Accidents 5
Lifestyle 3 Health/Medicine 4
Additional Domestic Affairs 3 Economics 4
Environment 3 Lifestyle 3
Miscellaneous 2 Business 3

The agenda also differed in its nature.

A major focus of talk radio is the media itself, including the talk radio hosts talking about themselves as victims of attack. Media, the No. 2 talk subject of the year, filled 16% of airtime studied, about six times as much as in the media over all (3%). Elections/politics at 28% was the No. 1 talk topic of the year compared to 13% and No. 2 over all in the media.

Foreign events that did not involve the U.S. directly were largely absent in the discussion on talk radio (2% of time studied compared to 11% in the media over all). Crime, the No. 4 story at 7% in the media over all, was No. 5 on talk radio, but only about half as big at 4%.

Talk radio, however, is also notable for the degree to which, at least in the hours studied, it was not much concerned with two classic elements of the tabloid media formula — crime and celebrity. Those two topics made up about 5% of time studied in talk radio, half of the 10% of the media over all.

This tendency toward amplification also means that the talk radio is particularly narrow. The combined coverage of the legal system, business, transportation, education, and science and technology, accounted for a mere 2% of the talk radio airtime in 2007. The media over all, which still did not cover them extensively, devoted 7% to those issues last year.

In a year in which we have concluded that the media agenda in general was narrow, talk radio focused on an even smaller slice of that pie.

Top Stories : Talk Radio vs. Media Overall
Percent of Newshole

Talk Radio Media Overall
2008 Campaign 17% 2008 Campaign 11%
Iraq Policy Debate 12 Iraq Policy Debate 8
Immigration 4 Events in Iraq 6
Global Warming 3 Immigration 3
Iran 3 Iran 2
U.S. Domestic Terrorism 2 U.S. Domestic Terrorism 2
New Democratic Congress 2 U.S. Economy 2
Valerie Plame Investigation 2 Iraq Homefront 2
Fired U.S. Attorneys 2 Pakistan 2
Events in Iraq 1 Fired U.S. Attorneys 1

News Through the Prism of Ideology:

On March 29, 2007, former Justice Department official Kyle Sampson offered damning testimony about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, telling Congress that Gonzales was more involved in the firings of U.S. attorneys than he had acknowledged.

On the talk radio airwaves, liberal talk hosts Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes eagerly jumped on the Gonzales story. In the airtime examined by PEJ, conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage uttered barely a peep on the matter.

Almost two months later, the announcement of a compromise on immigration legislation galvanized conservative radio hosts who labeled it an “amnesty” bill. Sean Hannity declared that “you cannot begin your career or life as an American by first breaking the law.” Michael Savage said: “We’re not giving away the sovereignty of America. This is the Alamo right now.”

On that subject, their liberal counterparts were virtually silent.

It comes as no surprise that liberal and conservative hosts would have sharply differing views on the war in Iraq or the presidential race or a host of other subjects. But another way in which the ideological wars on talk radio play out is through the selection of stories themselves. In an industry in which hosts much prefer to attack the enemy rather than defend the ally, ideology determines what subjects are even up for discussion.1

Immigration, a hot-button issue for many conservatives, was the third-biggest topic (at 6%) in conservative talk radio in 2007, right behind the campaign and the Iraq policy debate. Liberal talkers were much less interested, devoting only 1% of their airtime to what was their 10th-most popular story. The third-hottest story among liberal talkers (4%) was domestic terrorism, as they criticized the Bush administration on issues such as torture and electronic surveillance. Conservatives, who tended to back White House policy on terrorism, devoted only 1% of their airtime to that subject.

Not surprisingly, liberal hosts were far chattier about the U.S. attorney firings and the Valerie Plame/CIA leak case that led to the conviction of Vice President Cheney’s aide, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby Jr., since both were embarrassing to the administration. The arrest of Larry Craig, the conservative Republican Senator accused of sexual overtures to an undercover police officer, was also a much hotter topic on liberal talk.

Story Selection in 2007
Conservative vs. Liberal Talk Radio
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

Conversely, conservative talkers spent a lot more time on the subject of global warming — criticizing its chief advocates, particularly Al Gore. They also invested much more energy on the new Democratic-led Congress, whose leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were a frequent target for criticism.

And then there is the Hillary Clinton factor. Her history with the conservative talk hosts goes back to the 1990’s when she was First Lady and presided over an unsuccessful attempt to remake the nation’s health care system. (Conservative talk radio’s ascendancy coincided to a significant extent with Bill Clinton’s 1992 election and the hosts decided to make his administration a primary target.) Ever since Hillary Clinton’s January 2007 announcement that she intended to follow in her husband’s footsteps, she has been a prime subject on talk radio, more specifically a prime target of conservative talkers.

For the first five months of 2007, Clinton generated almost three times as many segments on conservative talk radio than any other candidate, a PEJ report on early election coverage found. And 86% of those segments on the conservative air waves about her were negative in tone. In that period, she did not fare particularly well on the liberal talk radio either, but was a far less frequent topic of discussion. A study of the summer months of 2007 found that Clinton was a lead newsmaker in more than four times as many talk radio segments on the campaign as the next closest candidate, Barack Obama. And again, it was largely conservative talk radio’s fixation with her driving that coverage.

Discussing some purported problems with the Clinton campaign on a December edition of his show, Rush Limbaugh opted for a Wizard of Oz wicked witch analogy. People have been e-mailing all morning “asking me ‘Do you believe it’s the end for Hillary?’ ” Limbaugh remarked on Dec. 14. “Until I see the house fall on her… and the legs curl up [and] the body in the casket, she is not dead, she is not finished.”

That ethos was also summed up by Hannity, who during the campaign nicknamed his program The Stop Hillary Express.

Conservative Talk and the Immigration Jihad

The ability of talk hosts to influence voters may be an open question, but on one important legislative matter in 2007, the conservative hosts seemed to have had an impact. In the six weeks between the May 17 introduction of immigration legislation and the bill’s June 28 demise, the talk hosts were in the forefront of a relentless assault on the measure. Day in and day out, Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage — with considerable help from CNN’s Lou Dobbs — railed against the immigration bill and its supporters. So intense was the barrage that among conservative radio hosts, the immigration debate was the No. 1 topic in the second quarter, filling 16% of the airtime. (The second-biggest topic was the presidential campaign at 13%).

What made the conservative talkers’ war on the immigration bill more noteworthy was their willingness to butt heads with some key Republicans who had often been allies, including President George Bush. So exasperated was Republican Senator Trent Lott that he complained openly during the immigration debate that “talk radio is running America.”

That only made Lott a bigger target. “What are we going to do about Mississippi Senator Trent Lott… one of the engineers of the Senate immigration bill, the amnesty bill?” Limbaugh asked his listeners. “Senator Lott’s out there saying the problem with this is talk. Now what does that mean?”

On his radio program, Hannity defended his stance by drawing firm distinctions between conservatives and Republicans. “We stand up for our principles regardless of any party affiliation,” he said. “We find ourselves now at odds with Republicans for one reason and one reason only…. They keep compromising their values.”

That was same argument that conservative talk hosts would make later in explaining their campaign against John McCain, who became the Republican party’s presidential nominee but was deemed too liberal for their tastes.

Differences among Hosts of the Same Ideology:

The conservatives:

Naturally, the most obvious arguments and differences are between the liberal and conservative talk hosts. But a close examination also reveals that there are some significant differences among talkers of the same ideologies.

In terms of news agendas, there were some noticeable differences among the three big conservative hosts. Hannity is most clearly a Washington creature, spending 45% of the first half hour of his program on the topic of politics/campaigns. That is about 150% as much attention as Limbaugh gave the subject in his top 30 minutes and nearly three times as much coverage as Savage offered. Savage, in contrast, whose program has more in-your-face vitriol, seems more culture-oriented and less political. Topics such as lifestyle, immigration, religion, race and gender all get more time on his 30 minutes of air-time (23%) than from Limbaugh (8%) or Hannity (9%). Limbaugh is harder to pin down, but in some ways encompasses, with more wit and less overt anger, combinations of both. But the differences that often stand out the most are stylistic. Limbaugh is a godfather of modern conservative talk and a very influential figure in conservative circles. (Many credited him with a role in the conservative revolution that swept the Republicans into power in the 1994 Congressional elections and he is often characterized as the leading representative of the talk-show wing of the Republican Party.)

Limbaugh’s on-air style is relaxed, conversational and flecked with humor, or at least sarcasm. He has a considerable skill for self-promotion and injecting himself into the middle of major political controversies, a classic example being the “phony soldiers” furor that erupted in September 2007. At the time, Democrats were smarting over congressional resolutions condemning an ad from the liberal group, MoveOn.org, characterizing the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, as “General Betray Us.” In a September 26 on-air phone conversation about anti-war sentiment, a caller said that media “never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and spout to the media.” Limbaugh interrupted, saying, “the phony soldiers.” Limbaugh’s use of the term “phony soldiers” was quickly attacked as an effort to discredit troops who might express doubts about the war and Democrats in Congress introduced a measure condemning the talk host.

Limbaugh countered that his “phony soldiers” remark referred only to one veteran who had fabricated stories about Iraq atrocities. And in a creative response to this dispute, Limbaugh took the letter of complaint about him signed by 41 Democratic senators and auctioned it on eBay, with Limbaugh matching the top bid and the money going to charity. The final bid: $2.1 million. On his show, Limbaugh played a clip of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a major critic in the “phony soldiers” battle, actually lauding the Limbaugh auction as “worthwhile cause.” It was typical of Limbaugh’s knack for making himself part of the story.

Younger and newer on the scene than Limbaugh, Hannity, not only has the bully pulpit of a syndicated talk radio show, but is also co-host of the Fox News Channel’s nightly Hannity & Colmes show where he faces off against liberal Alan Colmes. Hannity and Limbaugh seem quite close on many issues and they spent much of the year battering Hillary Clinton. Almost in sync, they both shifted targets as the Republican primary fight went on, becoming sharply critical of John McCain and Mike Huckabee for being too liberal and thus, becoming the favorite Republican candidates of the liberal mainstream media. Their preferred Republican candidates clearly were Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney, two politicians who dropped out after failing to meet expectations.

The differences between Hannity and Limbaugh appear to be more about style than substance. Hannity tends to be more overtly pugnacious and direct, purveying more of a street-fighting sensibility than Limbaugh, who tends to favor more linguistically intricate soliloquies and ornate reasoning.

The real wildcard among conservative talkers is the San Francisco-based Savage, who is more of a contrarian and loose cannon than either Limbaugh or Hannity. On occasion, he has even taken what can only be characterized as a liberal view of an issue.

When Haliburton, the big military contractor once led by Dick Cheney, decided to open a headquarters in Dubai, Limbaugh defended the decision, charging that the company “is one of the footballs kicked around by the mad, insane left.” But Savage, who attacked the move as an example of the unfettered power of big business, played a clip of President Eisenhower’s famous speech warning of the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” When a student was subdued with a Taser while being disruptive during a John Kerry appearance at the University of Florida, Savage called the campus police “fascist,” and declared that “I don’t want to live in a country where even a left-wing student gets tasered for asking a question.” Savage also remarked that making Barry Bonds the villain in baseball’s steroid scandal “looks like racism to me,” in effect making a classic liberal argument by using a charge of racism in Bonds’ defense .

At the same time, the volcanic Savage is more likely than any host to explode and use scorched-earth rhetoric to make his points. He once likened the wave of immigration in the U.S. to the battle at the Alamo and on another occasion, predicted that many liberals would “die in their own vomit.” He expressed disappointment that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi “was not gutsy enough” to make an obscene gesture to Syrian President Bashar Assad on a trip to Damascus. And he denounced those who questioned General David Petraeus during a Congressional hearing as “those slimy, backstabbing, anti-American scum called Democrats.”

Other aspects of Savage’s behavior are unorthodox as well. To protest the media’s extensive coverage of the tabloid Anna Nicole Smith saga, he began reading on the air from “Once Upon a Time in the Catskills” a memoir about the summer of 1958 designed to hark back to a simpler, more innocent time in America. To honor the passing of tenor Luciano Pavarotti, he played classical music, something you don’t usually hear on talk radio.

Top Stories : Conservative Talk Hosts
Percent of Newshole

Host Story Rank 1 Story Rank 2
Rush Limbaugh 2008 Campaign
19%
Iraq Policy Debate
12%
Sean Hannity 2008 Campaign
33%
Iraq Policy Debate
10%
Michael Savage Immigration
9%
Iraq Policy Debate
8%

The liberals:

On the liberal/Democratic side, the North Dakota-based Schultz and New Yorker Rhodes are distinct from each other as well.

First, there were some differences in news agendas. At 18% of the first 30 minutes of his airtime in 2007, Schultz devoted more than twice the attention to the 2008 campaign than Rhodes did (8%). Rhodes was more concerned with the two leading threads of the Iraq war — the policy debate and events inside Iraq — than Schultz, devoting 19% of her newshole to those subjects compared with 13% for Schultz.

But the biggest contrast between the two is stylistic, with Schultz’ moderate Midwestern mores clashing with Rhodes’s Brooklyn brashness and ideological bomb-throwing.

One example of their divergent approaches was the reaction to news that Larry Craig, a conservative Republican Senator from Idaho, had been arrested for making a sexual overture to an undercover police officer in a Minneapolis airport. Rhodes went on the offensive, accusing Craig of being an “anti-homosexual homosexual” and attacking his Republican colleagues who quickly distanced themselves from him as hypocrites. For Schultz, the issue was far different. “The thing that bothers me the most about the Craig thing is that something happened with law enforcement and it went unreported to the Ethics Committee or Republican leadership,” he said. Craig “shouldn’t have the liberty… to be able to hide an arrest.”

Top Stories : Liberal Talk Hosts
Percent of Newshole

Host Story Rank 1 Story Rank 2
Ed Schultz 2008 Campaign 18% Iraq Policy Debate
12%
Rhandi Rhodes Iraq Policy Debate 15% 2008 Campaign
8%

On another show, Schultz announced that he liked all the Democratic candidates, the kind of positivity one usually does not here on talk radio. “There isn’t one up there I wouldn’t vote for,” he said. “I’m just a big cheerleader today, aren’t I?”

Rhodes’ elbows and rhetoric are often sharper. She dubbed the First Lady “Crazy Eyes Laura Bush” and voiced her opinion that Bush “had a face lift.” She mocked John McCain’s assertion that the security situation inside Iraq had improved by declaring that during his stay in Iraq “John McCain had more bodyguards with him than P. Diddy getting to the MTV Awards.” At one point, she voiced her displeasure at General Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker by characterizing them as a “tag team of liars.”

Rhodes was involved in a strange drama back in October, when she suffered significant facial injuries in a fall in New York City. The next day, another liberal host told listeners that Rhodes had been assaulted and raised the specter of a deliberate attack by “the right-wing hate machine.” Rhodes then returned to the airwaves and said that “I don’t know if someone hit me from behind or if I just fainted.” She was not able to clear up the mystery, but the episode offered further proof that in talk radio, everything is about politics.

Radio News Headlines: Brief but Broad

When the 5 o’clock CBS News aired on April 16, 2007, the depth of that day’s tragedy had become clear. In the worst shooting incident in American history, a murderous rampage had left 33 people dead on the campus of Virginia Tech. The newscast led with an update from the scene, followed by a White House reaction from President Bush and devoted a full two minutes to the story, a very long time for the briskly paced radio headlines format.

But even with Virginia Tech dominating, the five-minute newscast featured seven stories that quickly traversed the news landscape—including a jury verdict for a Hurricane Katrina victim; questions about an arthritis drug; Boston Marathon race results; closing stock prices; a terrorism-related trial in Miami; and fears of a cell phone-transmitted virus in Afghanistan.

That newscast offered a smorgasbord of news topics typical of the platform: crime, domestic events, medicine, sports, economics and foreign affairs.

In 2007, the Project for Excellence in Journalism examined these top-of-the-hour radio newscasts from CBS and ABC and found that in their own way, they were models of diversity, brevity and efficiency. These headline services — usually marking the top of the hour on radio talk, news and information stations — are an important force in radio in America, a primary source of news for stations of all kinds of spectrums. And in the hundreds of stations around the country that categorize themselves as “news and talk,” such as the ones that carry major talk show hosts, these headlines represent the news.

In general, the study finds, they offer an impressively broad if quick look at the day’sevents, Cliff Notes to the news. What is absent is depth, any kind of nuanced analysis or comparison of multiple angles on any given issues. But the sense of scale, or ordering of news by importance, is more often found here in the headlines than on the talk programs that often follow.

The news headlines are designed for their well-defined niche, serving time-pressed commuters in their cars, multi-tasking homemakers in the kitchen or those that want to listen mostly to music while still being plugged into the news of the day. They are straightforward and delivered without attitude or agenda.

For all the terrain they cover in a short period, these newscasts are more than rip-and-read exercises in which smooth-sounding anchors regurgitate news or wire stories. The Project’s examination of these reports found that the largest component, 46% of the airtime, consisted of prepared news packages in 2007, often with reporters from the field and with sound “actualities” or quotes from sources. About 32% was made up of live comments or reporting from staff journalists. And only 21% of the time was spent with the anchor functioning as storyteller or reader.

Format of News Radio Headlines
Percent of Newshole

Format
Package
46%
Staff Live
32
Anchor Read (Voice-over/Tell Story)
21
Interview
1
Live (Event or Ext. Live)
<1

When it comes to news agendas, one striking element of the radio headlines is the subject that did not get very much coverage, the 2008 presidential contest. In a year in which the media were consumed by the campaign, elections/politics was only the 10th-biggest topic area in the headlines, accounting for just 3% of all the airtime. By means of comparison, it was the No. 2 topic (at 13%) in the media over all for 2007 and in the world of talk radio elections/politics represented the top subject area, consuming 28% of the airtime.

Top Broad Story Topics: News Radio Headlines vs. Talk Radio vs. Media Overall
Percent of Newshole

Rank News Radio Headlines Only All Talk Media Overall
1 U.S. Foreign Affairs 13% Election/Politics 28% U.S. Foreign Affairs 17%
2 Crime 10 Media 16 Elections/ Politics 13
3 Disasters/ Accidents 10 U.S. Foreign Affairs 12 Foreign (Non U.S.) 11
4 Economics 10 Government 8 Crime 7
5 Foreign (Non U.S.) 7 Crime 4 Government 6
6 Health/ Medicine 7 Immigration 4 Disasters/ Accidents 5
7 Government 6 Lifestyle 3 Health/ Medicine 4
8 Lifestyle 5 Additional Domestic Affairs 3 Economics 4
9 Miscellaneous 4 Environment 3 Lifestyle 3
10 Elections/ Politics 3 Miscellaneous 2 Business 3

The trend toward limited coverage of the campaign was confirmed when the news headlines were analyzed more narrowly, by individual story rather than the more general topic category. The 2008 campaign was only fourth-biggest radio headlines story (filling 2% of the airtime), compared with No. 1 for the media over all (at 11% of the newshole) and No. 1 on talk radio (17%).

What the radio headlines do deliver is a broad and balanced news menu. U.S. international news, driven primarily by the war in Iraq, topped the topic list (filling 13% of the newshole). That was followed closely by crime (10%), disasters and accidents (10%), economics (10%), foreign events not related to the U.S. (7%) and health/medicine (7%).

That kind of balance in topic selection distinguishes the headlines from the media over all, with its heavier emphasis on three major categories — U.S. international news (17%), elections/politics (13%) and foreign non-U.S. (11%). And it represents a sea change from the world of talk radio, where the pre-occupation with elections/politics (28%) and media (16%) accounted for nearly half the newshole.

Looking at the radio headlines by their coverage of big stories, the editorial balance is even more obvious. The top story of the year, the policy debate over Iraq, was separated from the No. 10 story, rising gasoline prices, by a mere 6 percentage points.

Top Stories: News Radio Headlines vs. Talk Radio vs. Media Overall
Percent of Newshole

Rank News Radio Headlines Only All Talk Media Overall
1 Iraq Policy Debate 7% 2008 Campaign 17% 2008 Campaign 11%
2 Events in Iraq 5 Iraq Policy Debate 12 Iraq Policy Debate 8
3 U.S. Economy 3 Immigration 4 Events in Iraq 6
4 2008 Campaign 2 Global Warming 3 Immigration 3
5 U.S. Domestic Terrorism 2 Iran 3 Iran 2
6 Iran 2 Domestic Terrorism 2 U.S. Domestic Terrorism 2
7 Fired U.S. Attorneys 2 New Democratic Congress 2 U.S. Economy 2
8 Iraq Homefront 1 Valerie Plame Investigation 2 Iraq Homefront 2
9 VA Tech Shooting 1 Fired U.S. Attorneys 2 Pakistan 2
10 Gas/Oil Prices 1 Events in Iraq 1 Fired U.S. Attorneys 1

The attention given to rising gas prices, a story the public followed very closely this year, highlights another factor that distinguished the radio headlines. The headlines devoted a large portion of the newshole, 10%, to the subject of economics. (For the media over all in 2007, economics was the eighth-biggest subject, at 4%.) Some of that is the result of the dutiful daily reporting of the numbers on Wall Street. But given the fact that the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the slowing economy had by early 2008 emerged as a primary campaign topic, perhaps even eclipsing the Iraq war, the emphasis on economics suggests some solid news judgment at play.

Despite its ability to deliver a brisk news digest, there are natural limits to relying on radio headlines for the bulk of one’s news diet. The average length for a radio headlines story in 2007 studied by the Project for Excellence in Journalism was just under 25 seconds. And given that the lead story often gets more in-depth treatment, many of the others are reduced to quick synopses. On the evening of April 16, 2007, for example, the CBS broadcast devoted slightly more than two minutes to an update on the Virginia Tech tragedy. But five of the remaining six stories in that newscast each took less than 25 seconds. The three stories immediately following the Virginia Tech update on the ABC headlines service that day were each under 10 seconds in length.

While sometimes enhanced with live or taped reporting from the scene, the headline stories are still too brief to offer listeners much nuance or to evaluate complicated issues. A more detailed 2006 study of news in three markets in the U.S. found that most of these stories made almost no attempt to offer listeners much context, explore different elements or try to make any sense of how stories might affect them.2

Footnotes

1. Each day, on the conservative side, the PEJ studied the first 30 minutes of Rush Limbaugh’s show and rotated between the first half-hour of Sean Hannity’s and Michael Savage’s shows. On the liberal side, PEJ rotated between the first half-hour of Randi Rhodes’ program and Ed Schultz’s program each day. In total, the Project examined approximately 7.5 hours of talk radio per week.

2. See state of the News Media 2006, http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.com/2006/narrative_daymedia_radio.asp?cat=9&media=2.