March 6, 1998

Changing Definitions of News

Differences in Media

Today, what Americans know may differ greatly depending on their source of news. In the second part of the study, looking at a broader universe of the news media in the fall of 1997, we also found different kinds of news media offering markedly different definitions of news depending on what they perceived their market niches to be.

Prime Time Magazines

Prime time network television news magazines, the growth area of network news, is a genre oriented around people stories, lifestyle/behavior, news you can use and celebrity entertainment. Overall 55% of their stories concerned these issues.

They also covered crime and justice heavily, 23% of the time.

What is also striking is what the TV news magazines don't cover. Only eight percent of the stories on the prime time news magazines concern the combined areas of education, economics, foreign affairs, the military, national security, politics or social welfare issues.

Such an emphasis on people stories and away from politics, foreign affairs arts, education and religion may not be surprising given that these programs are set against prime time entertainment programming, and often are aimed at audiences that do not watch network news. They might, in that sense, be considered the "back of the book" of TV network news.

It is important to remember as well, however, that the prime time magazines have supplanted documentaries on network television; also, most of television's in-depth news coverage and the vast majority of its investigative reporting occurs on these programs. It means, however, investigative work in network television today for the most part does not concern education, economics, foreign policy, military, social welfare, government, politics or the military.

Profiles and crime were the most popular categories of stories on the news magazines, followed closely by stories about consumer news, then health and medicine and law and justice.

Print Magazines

The print news magazines, Time and Newsweek, have seen broad shifts in emphasis. One of the most notable is a decline in coverage of ideas. In 1977, nearly one in five cover stories (18%) concerned policies or ideas. By 1987, that had fallen to just one in twenty covers, where it remains.

Straight News as a Percent of Stories by MediumToday, Time and Newsweek most often have cover stories in the area of consumer and health news and celebrity entertainment. Consumer and health news emerged as the largest category of news, ahead of government, with celebrity entertainment a close third.

The longitudinal study suggested the changing style of the news weeklies cannot be attributed to the rising speed with which news is delivered as is often suggested. The emphasis on straight news accounts in the news magazines remained steady–unlike on TV or in newspapers. (It actually increased 3 percentage points).

Network News

Network newscasts have become a hybrid. They have moved somewhat in the direction of the prime time news magazines, toward consumer and health news. Yet they have also maintained a relatively sizable commitment to areas not covered elsewhere on television, such as foreign affairs.

Emphasis on Network News by YearThe greatest new shift in emphasis of network news was a marked rise in the number of stories about scandals, up from just one-half of one percent in 1977 to 17% in 1987 and 15% in 1997. That increase in scandal related stories also is true for other media as well. As a point of context, the 1987 coverage studied occurred in the middle of the Iran Contra scandal, whereas 1997 did not come at a moment of particular peak for any one scandal. That suggests that scandals have become a fixed category of news over the last two decades.

The next biggest shift in emphasis in network news is a rise in human interest and quality of life stories. (Human interest was defined as stories not related to any particular news event or trend but were feature stories about people that were simply interesting. Quality of life stories were defined as stories whose emphasis was largely how to improve one's life, health or safety.) On network TV, human interest and quality of life stories doubled from 8% of the stories that appeared in 1977 to 16% in 1997.

Unlike the print news magazines, the networks saw a substantial decline in stories that were either straight news or were in depth-analysis or updates, falling from seven in ten stories in 1977 to four in ten by 1997. Emphasis on Front Page Newspaper Stories

Interestingly, network news saw a decline in political horse race and strategy stories, an area of persistent criticism among academic critics.

Front page newspaper stories saw some changes in emphasis similar to the shifts in network TV, but not to the same degree. Straight news accounts decreased by 50% from six in ten in 1977 to three in ten in 1997. The percent of stories that emphasized scandal increased from one in twenty-five to one in eight. Quality-of-life stories doubled from one in 25 to one in twelve. Stories that emphasized the bizarre grew four-fold from one in 200 to one in twenty-five. Human interest stories on the front page grew from one-in-fifty to one in seventeen. If you combine stories that emphasize human interest, quality of life, the bizarre, personality, and public fear into a broad category of features, they rose from accounting for just 8% of newspaper front page stories to nearly 25% today. Very possibly, newspapers included some of these types of stories deeper in the paper in 1977, but by 1997 they had become front page material.

Newspapers

Subjects of Front Page Newspaper Stories by YearDespite the shift in emphasis, front page newspaper stories remained most oriented around traditional news categories. Though the percentage fell slightly, a plurality of the stories were about government or foreign affairs in 1977 (60%), 1987 (60%) and in 1997 (50%). Stories on domestic affairs were also prominent, counting for 14% of the front page stories in 1997.

The trend in the subjects of newspaper stories was supported in the focused look at 1997. In that six week study, over half (59%) of the stories were about government, foreign affairs, the justice system or social welfare.