February 18, 1998

The Clinton Crisis and the Press

Breakdown by News Genre

Breakdown by News Genre


Factual Reporting

Overall, 59% of the reportage was factual reporting–it described what had happened. This reporting had several levels of verification: from multiple named sources, to a single anonymous source to another news outlet.

Looking just at this universe of factual reporting, substantially less than half, only 42%, was based on named sources.

More than a third, 35%, was based on anonymous sources. Another 21% was unverified by the news outlet reporting it and instead was taken from some other news outlet.

Thus, in all, more than half of the universe of factual reporting, 58%, was based on anonymous sourcing or another news outlet.

Interpretative Reportage

Clearly, at least in the first week of this story, it was not always the rule to leaven interpretation with evidence that would allow the consumer to assess how much the reporter knew. Roughly half the time, there was no evidence offered. The lines between opinion and analysis were not closely observed in the news pages or the news programs.

Overall 4 in 10 statements by journalists were interpretation (everything from attributed analysis to speculation). Of this interpretative universe, slightly more than half (55%) was analysis attributed or supported by some reporting, thus allowing the consumer to assess its credibility.

The rest, 45%, might be called punditry–that is the interpretation was not supported by any sourcing) Broken down, 18% of all interpretative reporting was opinion; 21% was speculation (opinions about events that had not yet happened); and 5% was judgment, (unequivocal conclusions by the reporter that left no room for disagreement–the president is a liar, the president cannot survive.)

Newspapers

Attribution and Sourcing by News Genre

The Washington Post was the most aggressive of the newspapers studied in using anonymous sources-including a single anonymous source. Only 16% of its reporting in the first few days of the story was based on named sourcing, significantly lower than the average. On the other hand, 38% of its reporting was based on two anonymous sources, and 26% of its reporting was based on a single anonymous source, in both cases more than triple the average.

The New York Times was more conservative: In it's pages, 53% of the reportage was based on named sources. Less than 8% of its reporting was based on a single anonymous source. At the Los Angeles Times, 43% of its reportage was based on named sources, and 9% on a single anonymous source. The Washington Times based 36% of its reportage on named sources and 3.4% on a single unnamed source. On the other hand, the Washington Times was also more subjective in its reportage. It published more than double the amount of analysis of newspapers (23%) and more than double the amount of speculation (6%).

Network TV

There were notable differences between networks, as well. CNN had the lowest level of reporting based on named sources, 18.5%, versus 22% at NBC, 24% at ABC and 26% at CBS.

CNN also stood out for allowing its reporters to engage in opinion unattributed to any reporting whatsoever. Nearly 30% of all their reportage was opinion. That is higher than any other network, or any other genre of new outlet.

On its Sunday program, CNN Late Edition, 26% of all statements journalists made on the program were unattributed opinions, more than double any other Sunday talk program other than the McLaughlin Group (which was 25% opinion). Late Edition, however, did not engage in any speculation or judgment. Thus, when opinion, speculation and judgment are factored together as total punditry, Late Edition had the lowest percent of statements (remaining at 26%). The McLauglin Group had the most statements that were total punditry (68%) followed by Meet the Press with 42% punditry.

On its nightly newscast, CNN The World Today, similarly, the level of unattributed and opinion and speculation were double that of any other evening newscast, 15% opinion and 10% speculation.

ABC's Nightline was the most factual news outlet of all those studied. More than 76% of all statements on Nightline were factual reporting. It had the highest level of reporting based on named sources of any TV show, 35%, and also one of the higher levels of reporting based on a single anonymous source, 15%. While it engaged in less analysis and punditry, Nightline also tended more often than other news outlets to air reporting from other news organizations it had been unable to verify itself, 17%.

The single most aggressive news organization when it came to relying on a single anonymous source was ABC News. Across all its programs, 14% of ABC News reporting was based on a single blind source. That compares with 8% for all the news media, and is double any other TV network. Of all of all news outlets studied, ABC News Good Morning America relied on a single blind source 22% of time, nearly triple the average. Prime time news magazines were the most analytical genre of program and had the least reportage based on named sources; 42% of what journalists said on such programs was analysis, and 21% of what they reported was based on named sources.

There were also distinct differences between evening network newscasts. CBS Evening News was the most judgmental (5.6% versus 2.6% at ABC's World News and 0% at NBC Evening News and 0% at CNN's The World Tonight).

The Sunday Shows

The Sunday shows relied far more on speculation, judgment and opinion than the rest of the press. In all, four in ten statements on the Sunday shows were opinion, speculation or judgment by reporters offered without any attribution as to what the reporter based that opinion on, more than double the press generally.

The McLaughlin Group defies categorization. Seventy percent of what appeared on that program was punditry (25% opinion, 36% speculation, 7% judgment). That is nearly double the level of punditry on either night-time talk shows like Larry King or Sunday talk programs like Meet the Press.

News Magazines

The length of time Newsweek had spent working this story, and its access to Linda Tripp and other sources driving it, showed in the study. Newsweek had roughly double the amount of reporting based on named sources (30%) versus Time (13%) in the first week. Newsweek also had less reporting based on other news outlets (2% versus 14% in Time).

Perhaps because it had more original reporting, Newsweek also had less analysis (33%) than did Time (49%).

Looking at a different category, the news magazines were the most aggressive when it came to inferring lessons about Bill Clinton's interior life or psychological motivations in this story. In all of the reporting, for instance, there were 10 instances in which journalists suggested that Bill Clinton had a sex addiction. Six of these occurred in one Monday's editions of Time and Newsweek.

In general, traditional news outlets tended to invest more in reporting and verification. Less than three percent of the reportage in newspapers, and only 12% on the nightly newscasts was punditry, compared with roughly 25% in all of news media.

Days of the Week

The press tended to leap to conclusions early on this story and then pull back. More than four in ten statements on the first day were either analysis or punditry (43%), declining each day thereafter until the Sunday talk programs, when it spiked upward again. Similarly, the reliance on named sources grew over time, rising from 17% on Wednesday to 36% on Saturday.

Aources and Attribution each day of coverage