March 27, 1998

The Clinton Crisis and the Press

Types of News Outlets

Tabloids

The breakdown of coverage in the tabloid press differed from the more serious press only slightly. Whereas the serious press in March relied on named sources 28% percent of the time, the tabloid press did so in four out of ten statements (41%).

The serious press relied on anonymous sourcing 12% of the time in March, and the tabloid press did so 21% of the time.

The serious press and the tabloid press had the same amount of analytical reporting in March (18%).

When it came to punditry, the tabloid and the serious press were also not far apart, (8% serious and 11% tabloid).

What these comparisons do not capture is broad differences in tone. Because such judgments are often subjective, we chose not to make those sorts of comparisons in this study.

Sources and Attribution by News Genre, March 5 & 6

Newspapers

While most types of news outlets were moving away from analysis and punditry (punditry is defined as opinion, speculation and judgment by reporters not attributed or supported by any reporting) only newspapers seemed to buck the trend, perhaps because understanding the Clinton deposition invited or even required some analysis.

The level of analysis, that is interpretation attributed to some reporting so that readers could judge for themselves how to evaluate it, rose noticeably in every paper studied, from 12% in January to 19% in the days studied in March.

Some news outlets appeared to change how they were covering the story more than others. The Washington Post, which stood out for its aggressive use of unnamed sources in the first week of the story, moved away from that approach somewhat, even while it was breaking the Clinton deposition from an unnamed source.

Its reliance on named sources rose from one in seven statements in January (16%) to more than one in four in March (28%).

In contrast, in January, six in ten statements (64%) in the Washington Post came from anonymous sources.

In March, even if you add the leaked Clinton deposition and anonymous source reporting into one category for the Washington Post (since the Post broke the deposition based on anonymous source), anonymous sourcing dropped by a third in the Post to four in ten statements (43%). Moreover, the leaked deposition accounted for three quarters of that.

The other newspapers studied relied somewhat less on named sources in March than in January, though again this was likely because they were reacting to the leaked deposition story.

Associated Press, Level of Sourcing

The Associated Press was added to the second round of the study because of the degree to which its coverage appeared in radio, TV and newspaper accounts around the country.

In March, the AP relied on named sources about the same as newspapers, (34% versus 32% for newspapers), and on anonymous sources the same amount as newspapers (both 11%). But it engaged in less analysis than newspapers (10% versus 19%) and, at least on the two days studied, in no punditry.

Overall, combining the AP coverage studied in both January and March, versus newspapers in January and March, the AP relied more on named sources and less on anonymous sources than newspapers and engaged in slightly less analysis.

Both engaged in only a negligible amount of punditry.

The News Hour

The News Hour was added to the study because it has some of the most strict rules about the use of anonymous sources and journalists engaging in commentary.

The News Hour did not use any anonymous sourcing on the days in the study.

When it came to named sources, reporting based on such sourcing accounted for about as much of the coverage as it did on the other evening newscasts (29% versus 31% for the others).

Actually, the PBS program engaged in more analysis among reporters, though this occurred in roundtable sessions rather than taped reports (21% versus 16% for other evening newscasts).

The News Hour did engage in punditry on the nights studied, though less than other evening newscasts (7% versus 11%).

Morning Shows

In the first study, we discovered that morning news programs (Today, GMA and CBS This Morning) have markedly different standards for approaching hard news. They relied less on reporting and more on commentary than the evening news.

That had changed somewhat by March. The level of commentary on the morning shows on this story declined from 40% in January to 28% in March.

More specifically, analysis dropped from 22% to 17%. Punditry dropped from 18% of the reportage to 11%.

Prime Time Magazines

The prime time magazines, which leaped on the story in January, had lost much of their interest by March. Even during the extraordinary moment of the leaked Clinton deposition, the three network prime time magazines that aired those nights did not cover the story.

Network Evening News

The nightly newscasts also shifted in the way they covered the story. In January, 44% of all the coverage was commentary, either reporter analysis attributed to some reporting or outright punditry. In March, even in the wake of the Clinton deposition that might have invited analysis (and did in print), the level of commentary on the evening network newscasts dropped by more than a third to just 27%.

Specifically, the level of analysis on the network nightly newscasts declined from 32% of all reporting in January to 16% in the days studied in March. The level of punditry remained roughly the same, 12% in January, 11% in March.

Comparisons between individual newscasts are unwise here because the coverage had subsided to the point that the numbers of statements studied per newscast are relatively small.

Print News Magazines

Time and Newsweek also showed some shift in their coverage, at least in the way they covered this story in their March 16 issues from the way they covered it on Feb. 10.

The level of analysis in January was 41%, the highest by far of any type of news outlet. That subsided to 21%. But the level of un-attributed punditry rose in Time and Newsweek over the earlier time frame, from 17% in January to 23% in March. While that increase may not seem large, it is interesting that it is the only type of news outlet to see an increase in pundtry.