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In a year dominated by the presidential campaign and the U.S. economy, how did the major broadcast networks cover the news? Did trends and patterns that were evident in 2007 continue last year? And how does network news distinguish itself from the rest of the media landscape?

The short answer is that evening news on the three main broadcast networks tended to cover the election differently than morning news—oriented less around the horse race—but also tended to focus a good deal of its economic coverage on issues that were easy to present graphically and convenient but less than central to the eventual meltdown.

In 2008, the Project for Excellence in Journalism studied every minute of the three commercial networks’ nightly newscast, 30 minutes of PBS’ evening newscast and the first 30 minutes of the weekday morning shows. That represents a universe of 19,796 stories or about 915 hours of network news.
Some of the key findings about network news in 2008 include:

The nightly PBS newscast, the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, differs substantially from its commercial network competitors in both format and news agenda. One of the most notable differences in 2008 was the NewsHour’s far more extensive coverage of international stories and events—everywhere from Iraq to Zimbabwe to the Gaza Strip.

Top Stories on Network TV vs. Media Over All
2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

The Network News Agenda: Better Rounded Than Most

Throughout 2008, the news agenda in the media was dominated by two stories—the presidential election and the sharp downturn in the U.S. economy. And to a large extent, the main priorities of the three broadcast networks were similar to those of the broader media universe.

The historic presidential election of 2008 filled 32% of the network newshole compared with 36% in the media over all. The economy accounted for 16% of the network coverage compared with 15% over all. And networks devoted 3% of their newshole to the Iraq war, a number that was 4% in the media in general.

In certain areas, however, network television offered a higher level of coverage than the norm, similar to the newspaper sector’s tendency to deliver a relatively broad news mix in a year of narrowing coverage. Network news, which has traditionally dedicated substantial reporting resources to medical science, led all five media sectors in coverage of health and medicine (5% compared with 3% in the media in general). And due in part to the strong visual component of many disasters and accidents, the networks provided the most coverage of them (7%) in 2008—almost twice as much as the 4% in the media over all.

The data also suggest this visual orientation may have also influenced the nature of the coverage of the second-biggest story of the year—the economy. While the level of economic coverage on network news was only marginally different from the media over all, more of that attention than elsewhere was focused on energy costs and gas prices, which proved in the end to be something of a distraction from the credit and housing crisis that created the economic meltdown.  In 2008, network news devoted more time to “pain at the pump” than any other media sector, thanks to an explosion of midyear coverage. In May, June and July—as oil surged to over $140 a barrel and a gallon of regular gasoline moved past $4—energy prices filled 8% of the network television newshole compared with 5% in the media over all.

Gas and Oil Prices Coverage Over Time: Network TV vs Media Over All
2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

Network Morning vs. Network Evening: Two Different News Views

An examination of network coverage in 2008 reveals the same pattern we saw the previous year. There was virtually no difference in the news agenda of the three big commercial broadcast networks. When it came to the election, ABC and NBC devoted 33% of their newshole to that subject compared with 31% for CBS. On the economy, there was almost no difference (16% on ABC and CBS and 15% on NBC.) And all three networks devoted 3% of the newshole to Iraq. Indeed, seven of the year’s top-10 stories were the same on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Top Stories: NBC vs. ABC vs. CBS
Percent of Newshole

NBC

ABC

CBS

1 Election*

33%

Election*

33%

Election*

31%

2 U.S. Economy

15

U.S. Economy

16

U.S. Economy

16

3 Olympics

3

Iraq War

3

Iraq War

3

4 Iraq War

3

Olympics

2

Olympics

1

5 Afghanistan

1

Warren Jeffs and Texas Raid

1

Warren Jeffs and Texas Raid

1

6 Warren Jeffs and Texas Raid

1

Violent Summer Weather

1

Violent Summer Weather

1

7 Blagojevich Scandal

1

Holiday Season

1

Blagojevich Scandal

1

8 Violent Summer Weather

1

Blagojevich Scandal

1

Mumbai Terror Attacks

1

9 China

1

Chinese Earthquake

1

Georgia/Russian Conflict

1

10 Hurricane Ike

1

Afghanistan

1

Chinese Earthquake

1

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

The results were the same when coverage was examined by broader subject areas. Each of the three networks devoted about the same percentage of their newshole to elections/politics, foreign affairs (international stories directly related to the U.S. and those that were not), economics, health, disasters, crime and education. In fact, they agreed on nine  out of the 10 top topics in 2008.

Top Broad Topics: NBC vs. ABC vs. CBS
Percent of Newshole

NBC

ABC

CBS

Elections/Politics 31% Elections/Politics 31% Elections/Politics 29%
Economics 11 Economics 12 Economics 12
Foreign (Non-U.S.) 7 Disasters/Accidents 7 Disaster/Accidents 7
Disasters/Accidents 6 Foreign (non-U.S.) 7 Foreign (non-U.S.) 6
Crime 5 U.S. Miscellaneous 5 Business 5
U.S. Foreign Affairs 5 Health/Medicine 5 Health/Medicine 5
Health/Medicine 4 Crime 5 Crime 5
Business 4 Business 4 U.S. Miscellaneous 5
U.S. Miscellaneous 4 U.S. Foreign Affairs 4 U.S. Foreign Affairs 4
Government 4 Lifestyle 4 Lifestyle 4

The significant differences in news priorities emerged not between rival networks, but between the tightly produced evening newscasts and the somewhat chattier morning shows—NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS’ Early Show. (The PEJ examines the first 30 minutes of morning show content, when the more immediate, harder news is covered.)

Let’s start with the biggest story of the year.  There was substantially more election news on the three morning shows (37% of the newshole) than in the evening (27%). Conversely, there was more coverage of the nation’s economic woes (17%) in the evening than in the morning broadcasts (14%).

A bigger difference emerged in the attention to the two shooting wars in which the U.S. is currently engaged. On the nightly news, 5% of the newshole was devoted to combined coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. That is more than twice the attention (2%) given to those stories in the morning hours.

When it came to broader topics, other differences showed up. Crime coverage was about 50% bigger in the morning—6% compared with 4% at night. (On the morning shows, for example, coverage related to the raid on the Texas polygamy compound was the No. 4 story of the year, generating about twice as much coverage as in the evening.) At the same time, viewers were more than three times more likely to see health coverage in the evening (7%) as they were in the morning (2%).

Top Stories: Network Morning vs. Network Evening
Percent of Newshole

Network Morning Network Evening (w/o PBS)
1 Election* Election*
2 U.S. Economy U.S. Economy
3 2008 Olympics Iraq War
4 Warrent Jeffs and Texas Raid 2008 Olympics
5 Iraq War Afghanistan
6 Violent Summer Weather Violent Summer Weather
7 Blagojevich Scandal Warren Jeffs and Texas Raid
8 Holiday Season Blagojevich Scandal
9 Hurrican Gustav Chinese Earthquake
10 Mumbai Terror Attacks Hurricane Ike

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

These morning versus evening differences are much bigger than any differences among the networks. ABC’s Good Morning America, for example, devoted 39% of its airtime to the presidential election while World News Tonight on the same network allocated 27% of the airtime studied to that story. The presidential election made up 39% of the newshole on NBC’s Today show, but accounted for only 26% of the coverage on the evening newscast. Only on CBS was the amount of election coverage relatively similar in the morning (33%) and in the evening (29%).

Network News and the Election: Horse Race in the Morning, Policy at Night

Not only were there substantial differences in the amount of election coverage offered on the morning and evening news broadcasts, but they also diverged when it came to the key elements of that coverage.

The three morning news shows, for starters, were focused heavily on the horse race aspect of the campaign — who was ahead or behind, the tactics and strategy of the race. More than two-thirds of the campaign coverage (70%) airing in the first half-hour of the morning shows was focused on the horse race, substantially higher than the 57% in the media over all. Only 11% of the coverage on the morning shows was devoted to policy issues compared with 13% over all.

The campaign was reported quite differently in the evening hours. There, the horse race accounted for 59% of the campaign newshole, slightly higher than in the overall number. And coverage of policy accounted for another 15%, substantially more than in the morning (11%).1

Why the intense focus on the horse race in the morning? In a campaign in which the candidates were often on the stump and making news late into the night, these early newscasts often seemed intent on resetting the state of the race—calibrating the candidates’ strategic positions and gauging the impact of the latest skirmishing—at the outset of each new morning news cycle.

Frame of Campaign Coverage
Percent of Campaign Newshole

Network Morning Network Evening Media Over All
Political Horse Race 70% 59% 57%
Political Other* 10 11 13
Policy 11 15 13
Personal 5 7 7
Other 2 5 6
Public Record 1 2 3

*Includes stories about advertisements, electoral calendar, endorsements and treatment by the press

Major Campaign Moments on Network News

In some ways, the role of broadcast news in the 2008 election may have been understated. The conventional wisdom that cable news, with its relentless coverage and sizable ratings increases, grabbed the campaign franchise away from network news misses something. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose interactions with the press were tightly controlled, sat down for two important interviews with ABC anchor Charlie Gibson and CBS anchor Katie Couric.

The Couric interview—when Palin stressed the strategic proximity of Russia to Alaska and couldn’t or wouldn’t mention the names of newspapers she read—may well have been one of the pivotal moments of the campaign. The Alaska governor clearly stumbled and raised doubts about her readiness. She was later quoted questioning the campaign’s decision to send her back for more after the first Couric interview had gone poorly.

Another important moment occurred on October 19, only 15 days before the voting, when President George Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, endorsed Obama and called him a “transformational figure.” That event dominated some precious news cycles in the waning days of the campaign.

It is also worth noting that the four general election debates were moderated by broadcast network journalists—Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer of PBS, Bob Schieffer of CBS and Tom Brokaw of NBC. The second Obama-McCain face-off attracted the largest viewership of any presidential debate since 1992 and the audience for the Palin-Biden meeting was the biggest for any television debate since Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter squared off in 1980.

During the campaign, candidates also made news by actively making the rounds on morning network shows. On February 5, the day of the crucial Super Tuesday contests, Hillary Clinton appeared on all three network morning shows encouraging people to come out and vote. On July 9, Obama was on all three network morning shows explaining his stance on Iran’s missile test. And just as the financial crisis was exploding, John McCain was talking on September 16 about the economy and his ability to handle the financial crisis on the morning circuit.

Format in Network TV

Our previous examinations of evening network news have found a certain thoroughness and precision of reporting not seen in cable or even on the morning news—a characteristic stemming largely from a reliance on taped and edited correspondent packages as the core of the nightly newscast. Even with continuing financial pressures on the networks, those qualities were maintained.

Story Format ABC vs. CBS vs. NBC
Percent of Newshole

ABC Evening CBS Evening NBC Evening
Package 82% 82% 78%
Interview 9 8 9
Anchor Read 7 8 9
Staff Live 2 2 4
Live (event or external live) <1 <1 <1
Unedited Audio/Video <1 0 0
Other 0 0 <1

In 2008, correspondent packages made up 81% of the time on the nightly newscasts, down only negligibly from 2007 (82%). Anchor interviews rose from 6% in 2007 to 8% in 2008. ABC and CBS relied more on taped packages than NBC, a continuation of a trend we saw in 2007.

One significant format change was the increase in anchor interviews on the CBS Evening News—doubling to 8% from 4% in 2007. When Couric arrived at CBS from NBC’s Today show in late 2006, interviewing was considered to be one of her strong points and initially it was a significant part of her role in the newscast. But in 2007, the network narrowed her anchor role and cut back on the interview time. Last year, that decision was apparently revisited and it produced perhaps the most memorable network conversation of the year—the Palin sit-down.

Story Format: Various TV News
Percent of Newshole

Network Morning Network Evening (w/o PBS) PBS Cable
Package 45% 81% 36% 26%
Interview 36 8 56% 46
Anchor Read 8 8 7 9
Staff Live 7 3 <1 15
Live (event or external live) <1 <1 <1 4
Unedited Audio/Video <1 <1 <1 <1
Other 5 <1 0 1

The trend on the morning broadcasts in 2008 was toward more interviews and fewer reported packages. Anchor interviews filled 36% of airtime studied in 2008, up from 30% a year earlier. The percentage of the morning newshole devoted to taped packages fell to 44% last year compared with 50% in 2007. That decrease occurred across the board at Good Morning America (50% vs. 54%), the Early Show (44% from 51%) and Today (40% from 46%).

The NewsHour: More International, More Interviews

The PBS nightly newscast, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is considered by many as an alternative broadcast to the three major networks for a number of reasons, including its length, its news priorities and its format. The hour-long program is mostly interview-driven, with the first seven minutes or so devoted to a summary of the day’s news, followed generally by three to five interviews exploring topics further.

But these interviews are quite different than on network morning and evening newscasts. The segments are longer (on average four minutes vs. three on morning shows and two on evening newscasts) and usually involve analysts and scholars.
The topic agenda also differed on the NewsHour.

One clear finding is that the PBS newscast was considerably more focused on stories beyond the U.S. borders. Besides Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the cyclone in Myanmar, the turmoil inside Pakistan, the elections in Zimbabwe and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all made the NewsHour’s top-10 roster of stories in 2008. With the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan, none of them were on that list on the commercial networks’ nightly programs.

The NewsHour’s greater emphasis on overseas events was even more obvious when coverage was examined on the broader subject level. Almost a quarter (23%) of the newshole on PBS was devoted to foreign affairs (both those that directly involved the U.S. and those that did not) while those subjects accounted for 13% on the three commercial network newscasts.

Compared with the commercial networks’ evening newscasts, the NewsHour offered more presidential election coverage in 2008, with32% of the airtime studied devoted to the story compared with 27% of evening network news. But there was somewhat less of the campaign horse race on PBS (54%) than on the other evening programs (59%) and there was more coverage of policy issues on the NewsHour (19%) than on its commercial competitors (15%).

The U.S. economy also received more coverage on PBS—20% of the newshole versus 17% on the commercial networks’ nightly news. And the NewsHour devoted 6% of its newshole to the Iraq war compared with 4% on the evening broadcasts.

Top Stories PBS vs. Network TV (w/o PBS)
Percent of Newshole

PBS Network TV (w/o PBS)
1 Election* 32% Election* 32%
2 U.S. Economy 20 U.S. Economy 16
3 Iraq War 6 Iraq War 3
4 U.S Domestic Terrorism 2 Olympics 2
5 Myanmar Cyclone 1 Warren Jeffs and Texas Raid 1
6 Supreme Court Actions 1 Violent Summer Weather 1
7 Afghanistan 1 Afghanistan 1
8 Pakistan 1 Blagojevich Scandal 1
9 Zimbabwe Elections 1 Holiday Season 1
10 Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 1 Chinese Earthquake 1

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

Footnotes

1. There was little variation among the networks in the way the race was conveyed on their nightly newscasts. The ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts all framed 59% of their campaign stories as horse race while 15% of ABC, 13% of NBC and 17% of CBS election stories were policy related. In the morning hours, there were somewhat larger distinctions between networks. On Today, 74% of election stories were about the horse race (the highest in network television) compared with 71% for the Early Show and 66% for GMA. NBC’s Today also offered the lowest proportion of policy stories (9%) compared with 11% on CBS’ Early Show and 12% on ABC’s GMA.