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A Year In The News

2008 Trends

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2008, the news agenda in the mainstream media shrank sharply, the press was late in picking up on the economic collapse and the war in Iraq all but disappeared from the news.

A year earlier, two stories—the Iraq war and the early days of the presidential campaign—accounted for more than a quarter of all the news coverage studied by PEJ, crowding out many other stories. That raised the question of whether these were such important stories that they demanded that level of coverage,  or whether the fragmenting media culture tended, perhaps paradoxically, to focus on a limited number of stories.

If the news agenda was narrow in 2007, it constricted considerably more in 2008. The two top events—a dramatic and precedent-setting election and a metastasizing economic crisis—filled half the total newshole studied, almost double the amount of the top two stories a year earlier, and leaving little room for much else.

To put that in perspective, in 2008 coverage of almost every topic other than politics and economics shrank. On the domestic side, that translated into diminished coverage of crime, health and medicine, disasters, and immigration as well as softer subjects such as celebrities and lifestyle. Overseas, attention to Iraq, the leading newsmaker in 2007, fell by about three-quarters. Coverage of other hot spots crucial to U.S. interests, most notably Iran and Pakistan, dropped as well—about 75% in the case of Iran and 40% with Pakistan.

Top 3 Stories: 2008 vs. 2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
Note: Election includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
U.S. Economy includes stories about the financial crisis, economic numbers, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie/Fannie
Iraq War includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and Iraq homefront

A year ago in this report, the first in which we had such a comprehensive content study of the news media—some 70,000 stories—we were struck by the narrowness of the media agenda. More outlets seemed to have resulted not in coverage of more things, but more coverage of a few things. That pattern seemed to intensify in 2008. For much of the year, every story other than the election and the economic crisis was essentially a distraction.

We cannot know for certain how much of that reflected the unusual nature of news in 2008, with a historic presidential election and a profound economic crisis. But while those extraordinary events help explain the lopsided coverage, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the narrowness of the media lens is a more systemic issue, a function of some of the realities—including economic ones—in today’s news industry.

These are some of the findings of A Year in the News, a detailed examination of the content of 48 news outlets over the 12 months. Those 70,000 stories include 2,200 hours of network and cable television, 7,350 front-page newspaper stories, 600 hours of radio, and 6,500 online stories.

Among other findings:

Top Broad Topics: Media Over All
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

The 800-pound gorilla: The 2008 Presidential Election

The degree to which the American news media seized on a campaign that generated intense public interest is almost hard to conceive. The election had already become the No.  2 media story as far back as February 2007, and was the second-biggest story for that year—making the early level of coverage unprecedented by any calculation.

But in 2008, as voters finally participated in primaries and caucuses, the campaign morphed into something altogether different. It will be instructive to monitor whether we will see a single story of that magnitude again in the foreseeable future.

But in 2008, as voters finally participated in primaries and caucuses, the campaign morphed into something altogether different. It will be instructive to monitor whether we will see a single story of that magnitude again in the foreseeable future.

Top 3 Stories: Coverage Over Time
2008
Design Your Own Chart
Election includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition.
U.S. Economy includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae.
Iraq War includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

The No. 3 story in 2008, the war in Iraq.

Election Coverage Varied by Media Sector

The election was the top story in every media platform studied, but it in some cases it was thoroughly overwhelming. In only one media platform — newspaper front pages — did the story account for less than a quarter of the coverage, at 23%. In network television news, the race for the White House constituted almost one-third of all the news coverage, and on radio, it was more than two-fifths.

Election Coverage by Media Sector
2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

But no sector came close to equaling the cable television news networks’ relentless attention to the story. In a year in which ratings for all three major cable news outlets—Fox News, CNN and MSNBC—jumped substantially, much of that can be attributed to the 59% of their airtime that was devoted to the presidential election. And that number rises further—to 65% of the newshole—in prime time.

Those statistics raise a question: to what extent was cable covering the election versus exploiting it. The answer is probably subjective, but the measure might be how much of the time was used to offer new information as opposed to rehashing the same material because it was good for ratings.

With such a one-note news agenda, it follows that cable news channels devoted less coverage to the economy and the war in Iraq than any of the other four major media platforms.1

The economy finally emerges as a major story

In 2008, as the U.S. economy collapsed and raised fears of a depression, it proved to be a difficult story for the press to get a handle on, a complex saga that unfolded in fits and starts and was often difficult to detect and measure in real time. That dynamic changed in the last quarter of the year, when Wall Street firms collapsed, banks failed, unemployment ballooned and officials in Washington tried to stop the bleeding with a massive financial transfusion. At that point, the dimensions of the crisis had become clear in the media narrative. (See PEJ Study on Economic coverage in the news)

For all of last year, the financial story, which included everything from energy costs and the troubled auto industry to the Wall Street bailout, accounted for 15% of the over all newshole. To provide some context, that is almost as much coverage as the Iraq war generated in 2007 (16%) and is about six times more coverage than the economy generated in 2007.

But much of that came in the last three months of the year. Although serious problems in the U.S. economy, particularly in the housing market, began to emerge in the second half of 2007, the news media were sporadic in their attention and late to connect the dots. After an initial spike in coverage in August 2007, for instance (to 5% of the newshole up from 1% in July), when the housing crisis became evident, coverage dropped again by about half over the next few months. Even in November and December 2007, when rising energy costs became a significant issue, coverage remained no more than 5% of the over all newshole.

Economy Coverage Over Time
2007 through 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
*Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae.

Then, in 2008, coverage bumped up and down, and  it can be broken into several distinct phases that varied in both subject matter and intensity. In the first quarter of the year, the economic news grew on fears of recession, filling 9% of the newshole and emerging as the second-biggest story behind the election.2

It remained at that level (8%) in through June, but the focus shifted again, from recession fears toward an easier subject with plenty of media-friendly visuals. In the second quarter rising energy prices and “pain at the pump” accounted for nearly half—47%—of all economic news. The looming banking crisis, fueled by the collapsing housing market, was far less visible. In August, the month before the crisis emerged fully blown, only 5% of the newshole focused on the economy, down from 11% in June.

Then on Sept. 15, the prestigious investment firm Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and within days, members of Congress and the Bush administration were frantically trying to cobble together what became a $700 billion bailout package. Suddenly, fears of a recession gave way to talk of the most significant financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

For the next four weeks, from September 15 to October 12, the full-blown economic crisis dominated the news, filling more than 40% of all the coverage examined by PEJ, more than the campaign now nearing the finish line (35%).

Then from mid-October until the end of the year, the economy story fell back somewhat, accounting for almost one-quarter of the over all news studied.

In all this, one longstanding pattern in the coverage continued even late in the year. The focus frequently shifted among different aspects of the crisis. In late September and early October, the politics of the Washington bailout bill was the dominant narrative. For the next few weeks, the wild fluctuations and decline of the stock market generated more attention that any other aspect. Then in mid-November, coverage coalesced around the fate of the troubled American auto industry. And by December, some of the focus moved from Wall Street to Main Street as storylines such as unemployment numbers became more prominent.

Were the media a day late and a couple of trillion dollars short?

There is no doubt that the job of covering the trajectory of the economic collapse in 2008 presented some great challenges for journalists. Certainly, many economists and government officials—people better equipped to understand the financial system than the vast majority of journalists—were caught off guard by the magnitude of the crisis and did not ring the warning bells that might have triggered quicker media attention.  Logistically, coverage of the financial sector is complicated by the fact that earnings reports and government data lag behind real-time events. That often leaves press accounts out of sync with what is happening on the ground.

But even with those factors taken into consideration, coverage of the run-up to the September meltdown will not go down as one of the media’s finer moments. (The previous most recent challenge to the media might be journalism’s failure to scrutinize carefully enough the claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war.) By and large, the press as an institution failed to function as an early warning system for what is now being called the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression.

That can be attributed, in part at least, to the media’s overarching preoccupation with the presidential election. Yet other factors strike us as also being in play. Journalists may have failed to have their ears close enough to the ground, relying instead on official pronouncements about the state of the economy rather than on the economic realities facing the storeowner, the homeowner and the breadwinner. And cutbacks in newsrooms may accentuate all this by reducing the number of specialists who are expert in financial reporting.

Public interest in the economic story—as tracked by a series of surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press—consistently outstripped media attention the story in late 2007 and in the early part of last year. For months, the average citizen seemed more attuned to the rumblings underneath the financial landscape than the journalists.3

Hindsight is 20/20, but economic journalists themselves seem to be aware of their shortcomings last year.  According to a January 2009 survey conducted by the media consulting firm of Abrams Research, a solid majority of financial journalists who were polled (68%) were critical of the media’s performance on the economy, feeling that the press failed to recognize the magnitude of the story in the run-up to the crisis.4

“Lots of people saw the various pieces of the crisis just fine; it was predicting the way that events unfolded that made everyone, including journalists, look foolish,” one business reporter lamented. 5

The Iraq war virtually disappears

In a year in which the election and the economy consumed half the over all newshole, which stories lost out in the competition for press attention?

The most glaring example is the Iraq war. In 2008, the Iraq conflict generated about a quarter of the coverage it received the previous year—falling to 4% of the newshole from 16% in 2007. In only one media sector, newspapers, which devoted 6% of their front-page coverage to the conflict, did the Iraq war constitute more than 5% of the over all news coverage studied in 2008.

Several components of the over all Iraq story saw huge decreases in coverage—a reflection, to some extent, of changing conditions both inside Iraq and domestically. With sectarian violence and U.S. casualties down significantly (U.S. military deaths in Iraq dropped to 314 in 2008 from 904 in 2007), coverage of events on the ground in Iraq dropped by two-thirds (to 2% from 6%).

Even larger was the drop-off in press attention to the Washington-based debate over war policy and strategy—to 1% from 8% the previous year. Some of that decrease can be attributed to the fact that the war, both as a subject in the presidential campaign and as a point of conflict between the Congress and White House, diminished significantly as an issue.

Iraq War Coverage Over Time
2007 through 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
* Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

In 2007, the battle for control over war funding and withdrawal timetables between President George Bush and the new Democratic-controlled Congress raged for months. In 2008, it was clear that the White House would control Iraq policy until the end of Bush’s term. The war—once expected to be the burning issue in the presidential campaign—receded sharply as the economy supplanted it in polls about public concerns. Indeed, the candidates’ debate over Iraq policy accounted for only 1% of all coverage of the presidential campaign compared with 3% for the economy.

Even these numbers are somewhat misleading because the numbers were much lower for much of the year. A single event, General David Petraeus’ trip to Capitol Hill in April to testify on the war, accounted for 19% of all the Iraq policy coverage in 2008. That eagerly awaited appearance before a largely skeptical Congress was certainly newsworthy. But the amount of coverage it generated—combined with the significant drop in coverage of the situation inside Iraq—is an illustration of how much easier it is for the media to jump on a Washington-based wartime topic than to convey the facts and factions on the ground in a conflict thousands of miles away.  By year’s end, the three television broadcast networks with news programs had closed their expensive bureaus in Baghdad.

There are a number of reasons—both related to the war itself and the realities of the news business—that help explain the reduction in coverage in 2008. But do they justify the sharp drop in attention to a war zone that is still the subject of angry domestic divisions within the U.S. and where 150,000 U.S. troops were still in harm’s way at the end of the year? Just as the pack journalism impulse sometimes serves to over-inflate coverage of certain events, there seemed to be an almost collective media retreat from Iraq in 2008. The most important question raised by that is whether the press understated the newsworthiness of the story.

While the death toll may have dropped, there was still plenty of important news from Iraq in 2008—everything from a dramatic visit to Baghdad by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the passage of a security agreement that sets a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal. There were also continued outbreaks of major violence—Turkish troops crossing the Iraq border to battle Kurds in February, a March showdown between Iraqi forces and Shiite militias, and a May bombing that killed dozens at an Iraqi wedding—that made it clear the fighting is far from over and that the country is far from stable.

That’s why many observers were shocked at the drop in coverage in 2008.  “Staggering,” said the American Journalism Review in a story simply headlined “Whatever Happened to Iraq?” The article said, “For long stretches over the past 12 months, Iraq virtually disappeared from the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and from the nightly network newscasts.”

The drop in coverage may also have had an impact on people’s knowledge of the war. As an example, in March 2008, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that only about a quarter of Americans knew approximately how many troops had died in the conflict. Six months earlier, more than half the respondents had gotten the casualty count right.6

Other International News Drops Even More

Iraq was not the only important global story to be crowded out of the American news in 2008.

Coverage of international affairs generally, whether it involved the U.S. or not, fell by more than 40%, to 17% of the newshole studied in 2008, compared with 29% in 2007.

Combined coverage of Pakistan and Iran—two countries that present major strategic challenges to the U.S.—fell by almost two-thirds (dropping to 2% of the newshole studied in 2008).

Coverage of the other war in which U.S. troops were fighting—Afghanistan—remained at the same low level (1%) in 2008 as 2007, but it had already almost disappeared. That despite a 2008 American death toll that was the highest in the six-year history of that conflict and continuing signs that the fighting may escalate.

Olympics: The Second Biggest Foreign Story, and One Athlete Dominated

One of the few major international newsmakers last year was a two-week-long sporting event. Coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games, the fifth-biggest story of the year, exceeded that of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and China.7

The Games were covered most heavily by network news broadcasts, thanks mostly to NBC, the U.S. broadcast rights holder. For the month of August, while the Olympics were filling 9% of the over all media newshole, NBC news was devoting 31% of its airtime to covering the Games and its related MSNBC.com website allotted 21% of its newshole to that subject. (The MSNBC cable channel, perhaps pre-occupied with the campaign, devoted only 1% of its August coverage to the Games).

The Olympics got virtually as much attention as the Georgia-Russia war in August, even though that event generated the most single-week coverage (26%) of any story not related to politics or the economy. While much of the Olympic coverage focused on the exploits of eight-time gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps, the U.S. media largely ignored some of the more substantive international angles.

Looking at coverage for August, which includes the run-up and postscript to the Games, American hero Phelps was the overwhelming focus of coverage, as a lead newsmaker in 14% of all Olympic stories. (The host country itself, China, was the focus of 2% of the stories.) When it came to the topics covered in news accounts, three subjects—the future of China and the Games’ impact on that, Olympic-related protests and press freedom in China —combined to account for 6% of the Olympic newshole. That’s about half the coverage devoted to the opening ceremonies alone.

What is chiefly responsible for the narrow news agenda—the news or the news industry?

The 2008 presidential election was an historic event. And given an economy widely characterized as the weakest since Great Depression, the 2008 financial meltdown may prove to be a once-in-a lifetime event. Thus it was not surprising that those two stories dominated the news. But it is important to ask to what extent the fact that two stories filled half of the news agenda reflects the news or the changing realities and shrinking resources of newsrooms.

Some evidence suggests the news—rather than the media culture—explain part of these numbers. Once the election was over, the news agenda for the remaining two months of the year became more diffuse. For example, in the weeks between November 4 and December 21, at least three and sometimes four stories each week accounted for at least 10% of the newshole. That had not happened previously since August 18.

But it is also true that some of the stories that helped fill the newshole late in the year—such as the troubled auto industry, the new Obama administration and the Rod Blagojevich scandal—were related to or offshoots of the economic crisis and the presidential election.

There are other factors that suggest the top-heavy news agenda in 2008 is a reflection of how the media now tend to function. For one thing, this shrinking news agenda did not suddenly emerge in 2008. In 2007, the basic dynamic was the same. No, the election and the Iraq war did not dominate as overwhelmingly as the election and economy did in 2008. But we now have a two-year track record, since PEJ began its News Coverage Index, of a press culture more oriented to talk shows and with depleted reporting ranks clearly focusing much of its time and energy on fewer stories.

There may also have been some basic bottom-line reasons why some media, particularly cable news, narrowed their news agenda.  In a crowded media landscape, cable news attached itself to the election and enjoyed significant, if temporary, ratings success and filled a big chunk of its 24/7 newshole with inexpensive programming in the form of pundit commentary. (See Cable Audience for more info)

Another contributing factor is the retrenchment on foreign coverage. In a time of economic hardship, many news outlets have shuttered expensive foreign bureaus, making ongoing consistent coverage of international stories much more difficult. (January saw the launch of GlobalPost, a Boston-based Web outlet dedicated to becoming a kind of clearinghouse for international news, at a time its founders say “original international reporting… has been steadily diminished in too many American newspapers and television networks.”) In the foreseeable future, there seems to be little prospect for a reversal of the trend away from global news coverage in the mainstream press.

That raises an interesting question. If another war on the scale and significance of Iraq broke out in this economic environment, would the U.S. media cover it as intensely as it did the last war, which began in 2003? That could get put to the test if the fighting and the American presence escalate significantly in Afghanistan.

Another factor that skews the news agenda is the tendency of the ideological debate-oriented venues—such as talk radio and prime-time cable news—to select and amplify one or two big stories from the news menu. What we have found in the two years of this study is that these ideological outlets often ignore news that does not lend itself to punditry and polarization. In their place, these programs tend to revisit the same themes day after day.

The Media Attention Span

And for the second year in a row, PEJ’s examination of the news agenda revealed the phenomenon of the one-week wonder. Even when a major story managed to break through the clutter of the election and economic coverage in 2008, the press quickly seemed to tire of it.

A sudden outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia was the top story for a week in August when it filled 26% of the newshole and became the biggest story in 2008 not to involve politics or the economy. The following week, coverage of the conflict was down by more than two-thirds. The sexual indiscretions that brought down New York Governor Eliot Spitzer filled about a quarter of the newshole (23%) in mid-March. A week later, it had virtually vanished, to only 2% of the newshole. The drain on reporting resources may be one major reason for the lack of staying power on stories that require aggressive and sustained follow-up reporting.

The shrinking newsroom resources, identified in every sector of the media in 2008, would seem to encourage this narrowing. (See Key Indicators for more info) Fewer people in newsrooms, as we have noted in this study in past years, inevitably pulls news organizations to focus intensively on one or two subjects at a time, and then move on. They simply no longer have the resources in reporting power to push a wider agenda.

This evidence does not all tilt in the same direction, but over all it would seem to suggest some theories behind the very constricted coverage in 2008. The magnitude of the election and an economic collapse likely shrank the rest of the newshole more drastically than normal. But it is also clear that some of the institutional problems and tendencies of the media—shrinking resources, scaled-back ambition, a media echo chamber in cable and radio talk—played a role in the narrowness of the media landscape last year.

Public Responses to the News: A Desire for a More Balanced News Diet

There is little doubt that the public was riveted by the 2008 presidential campaign. In a year-end summary of news interest, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, concluded that “interest in election news remained at historically high levels throughout the lengthy campaign” and that “public interest in the primary campaigns… was higher than during previous primary contests.”

Top Weekly News Interest Stories vs. News Coverage

News Interest index

News Coverage Index

NII Rank Story % Following Very Closely Story % of Newshole Week of
1 Conditions of U.S. Economy

70%

Financial Crisis

40%

9/22-28
2 Rising Price of Gasoline

66

Gas/Oil Prices

4

6/2-8
3 Debate Over Wall Street Bailout

62

Financial Crisis

45

9/29-10/5
4 2008 Presidential Election

61

2008 Presidential Campaign

51

10/13-19
5 Major Drop in U.S. Stock Market

59

Financial Crisis

36

10/6-12
6 Falling Price of Gasoline

53

Gas/Oil Prices

1

10/13-19
7 Hurrican Ike

50

Hurricane Ike

14

9/8-14
8 Wall Street Financial Crisis

49

Financial Crisis

37

9/15-21
9 Obama Transistion

49

New Obama Administration

23

11/17-23
10 2008 Primary Election

44

2008 Presidential Campaign

40

2/11-17
11 Hurricane Gustav

42

Hurricane Gustav

17

9/1-7
12 Debate Over Auto Bailout

41

U.S. Auto Industry

15

11/17-23
13 Risign Unemployment

40

Financial Crisis

20

12/1-7
14 Floods in the Midwest

39

Midwest Flooding

16

6/16-22
15 Beijing Olympic Games

35

2008 Olympics

10

8/18-24

But while the media overwhelmingly chose to focus on the campaign, the public’s interest in the news events seemed more balanced. Looking at the election, the economy, and Iraq, there were differences between the interest levels of the press and the public.

One measure of this is the roster of 2008 stories that registered at high levels of attention when people were asked what new they were following “very closely” in a given week. Eight of those top 15 stories dealt with some aspect of the economy, three concerned the presidential election or transition, another three involved major storms (including two hurricanes) and one was the Beijing Olympics.

The media saw things a bit differently. In terms of the quantity of press coverage, 14 of the 15 biggest stories in 2008 were about the campaign.

The term “Iraq fatigue” entered the vernacular in the last year to describe what appeared to be diminishing public attention to the war. And while Americans did not follow that conflict as closely in 2008 as they did in 2007, there is evidence that their appetite for news about Iraq, at least at certain times, was substantially greater than that of the press.

During a week in mid-January 2008, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced trip to Baghdad to push for political reform, 31% of Americans said they were following events inside that country very closely. But that story accounted for only 1% of the newshole. In the week of April 28-May 4, when Congress held hearings to talk about returning homeless veterans, 27% of the public said they were following news about returning troops very closely. That week, the impact of the war on the homefront filled just 1% of the newshole.

Even in a year when the campaign captured the public’s imagination and interest, there is evidence that news consumers wanted more of a smorgasbord than producers offered.

The Top Newsmakers: Politicians as celebrities (and criminals)

One other way of gauging the dominance of elections and politics in 2008 is to look at the roster of leading newsmakers, a designation given when at least 50% of a story is clearly about that person. Last year, 12 of the 20 top newsmakers were connected in some way to the presidential election, including seven people who were candidates for that office. That roster is led by eventual winner Barack Obama, who was a lead newsmaker in 10% of all the stories examined by PEJ.

Top Lead Newsmakers

# of stories % of stories
1 Barack Obama 6904 10%
2 John McCAin 3704 5
3 Hillary Clinton 2719 4
4 George Bush 1284 2
5 Sarah Palin 921 1
6 Rod Blagojevich 290 <1
7 Bill Clinton 274 <1
8 Mitt Romney 258 <1
9 Edward Kennedy 247 <1
10 John Edwards 201 <1
11 Mike Huckabee 200 <1
12 Eliot Spitzer 186 <1
13 Joseph Biden 180 <1
14 Ted Stevens 173 <1
15 General Motors 163 <1
16 Pope Benedict 160 <1
17 Michelle Obama 142 <1
18 Jeremiah Wright Jr. 123 <1
19 Scott McClellan 121 <1
20 Condoleeza Rice 119 <1

Some of the election-related newsmakers who did not actively seek the presidency in 2008 were: The outgoing incumbent George Bush (No. 4 newsmaker); GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin (No. 5) who became a media phenomenon after she was introduced to the nation in late August; Bill Clinton (No. 7), who was a feisty and controversial campaigner for his wife Hillary; Michelle Obama (No. 17); and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Obama’s pastor, whose inflammatory sermons seemed to nearly derail the candidate’s campaign (No. 18).

Two other top newsmakers were or had been part of the Bush administration—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (No. 20) and former White House press secretary turned Bush basher Scott McClellan (No. 19). And three others were politicians who ran afoul of the law, indicted Illinois Governor Blagojevich (No. 6),  New York Governor Spitzer (No. 12), who was done in by a sex scandal, and convicted Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (No. 14).

Crime

The Blagojevich case and the Spitzer episode both ended up among the top crime stories of the year. Even though the Blagojevich case did not break until Dec. 9, when he was arrested for allegedly trying to sell the appointment to the Senate seat that Obama was vacating, it generated such intense coverage in one month that it filled 1% of the over all newshole, was a top-10 story over all, and was the year’s biggest crime-related story. The Spitzer story was briefly big (23% of the newshole the week of March 10-16), but it did not generate as much sustained coverage as Blagojevich. Even so, the New York governor’s downfall became the No. 3 crime saga of 2008.

Over all, coverage of crime was down considerably in the media in 2008 (5% of the newshole compared to 7% in 2007), another casualty of the narrowing news agenda. And only one crime-related story, Blagojevich problems, made the year’s list of top-10 stories over all.

White-collar crime was a recurring theme, though. The collapse of Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme was the year’s fifth-biggest crime story. That’s all the more noteworthy given that, like the Blagojevich case, this was also a story that broke very late in the year, with Madoff’s arrest on Dec. 11.

Top Crime Stories by Coverage

1 Blagojevich Scandal
2 Warren Jeffs Trial and Texas Raid
3 Spitzer Scandal
4 Caylee Anthony Case
5 Madoff Investment Scam
6 Maria Lauterbach Murder Case
7 Baseball Steroids Scandal
8 Northern Illinois University Shooting
9 Anthrax Case, Suspect Suicide
10 Detroit Mayor Kilpatrick Charges

The No. 2 crime story was the Warren Jeffs case, which was triggered by a raid on a Texas polygamy compound in April, a saga complete with allegations of sexual abuse of children. The mystery surrounding the fate of the missing 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose body was discovered in December and whose mother was charged with her murder, was the No. 4 crime story in the year.

The seventh-biggest crime story, the baseball steroids scandal, was highlighted by former pitcher Roger Clemens’ dramatic appearance before Congress where he adamantly denied, before a skeptical nation, that he had ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

Footnotes

1. There are several niche cable channels, including CNBC and Fox Business News, that do focus narrowly on business and the economy

2. Recession fears constituted the dominant theme, 44% of the economic coverage, while concerns about the housing market, still major, receded  to 19%.

3. “Economic Problems, Especially in Detroit, Absorb Public’s Attention,” News Interest Index, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, November 20, 2008. http://people-press.org/report/472/economic-problems-detroit

4. “Top Journalists Predict Recession Will End Within A Year,” Abrams Research Financial Media Survey, January, 2009.

5. “Top Journalists Predict Recession Will End Within A Year,” Abrams Research Financial Media Survey, January, 2009.

6. “Awareness of Iraq War Fatalities Plummets,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, News Interest Index, March 12, 2008. http://people-press.org/report/401/awareness-of-iraq-war-fatalities-plummets

7. In the media over all, the Olympics accounted for roughly 1% of the newshole in 2008, and was just behind coverage of U.S. efforts to combat  terrorism and ahead of the Rod Blagojevich scandal in Illinois. And it was a top-10 story in every sector except cable news.