November 19, 2001

Before And After

By whatever slogan, “America’s New War” or “America Fights Back,” the war on terrorism has caused a colossal shift in the news people see on network television, according to a new study of evening and morning newscasts before and after the crisis.

Celebrity and lifestyle coverage, which had come to dominate network morning news and become a major factor even on the signature evening newscasts, has given way to levels of traditional hard news not seen in decades, according to the study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

On the morning news, stories about government, the military, national affairs and international affairs, which had nearly disappeared, are up more than seven fold. Stories about celebrities and lifestyle, which had dominated these programs, have declined by three fold.

At night, the evening newscasts have returned to a news agenda that is closer to the 1970s than the 1990s.

Today, eight-in-ten evening news stories concern government, national or international affairs, up 67% from a few months ago. Celebrity and lifestyle stories, which made up roughly a quarter of nightly news stories this summer, have vanished almost entirely.

And viewership, at least for now, is up in contrast to years of general decline.

These are a few of the findings of a new study of how television has reacted to the events of September 11, by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research think tank affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The study, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, examined the weeks of June 18-22 and 25-29 and October 15-19 and 22-26 on the three evening newscasts of ABC, NBC and CBS, and included an even more detailed study of their morning newscasts for the same four weeks as well.

Will the changes last? There are signs, however tentative, that the shift may be only temporary.

While the news has gotten more serious, almost all of the change is focused on the war, which suggests that the networks may have simply changed subjects rather than changed their approach to the news.

The morning shows, which had become in significant part instruments for selling things, are still using sizable amounts of their news time to peddle, though the products are now more connected to the news.

Consider, for instance, the segment on The Today Show about “Executivechute,” a parachute for people who might need to jump out of high buildings.

There are other signs, too, that the habits and norms TV producers learned over the last decade are well ingrained. Good Morning America last week did not miss the opportunity to make a news segment out of a preview of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show that would run on ABC during prime time, or of a profile of how supermodel Niki Taylor was recovering from a car accident-which also happened to be a segment on that evening’s “PrimeTime Thursday.”

The study, designed by the Project and executed by researchers at the Project and by media researcher Andrew Tyndall, also examined the nature and amount of selling and corporate synergy on the morning news programs.

The study found:

  • Even including the time period after September 11, 32% of the morning newscasts, excluding commercial breaks and local news inserts, is devoted to selling products, to self-promotion or promoting their sponsors.
  • Each network is more likely to promote their parent company’s products than they are products of any other single company.
  • Only rarely, 11% percent of the time in June and less than half the time overall, was the parent company connection disclosed.

In part, the goal of the study is to provide a baseline to begin to test whether we have seen a move away from a “softer” news agenda that has begun to alarm some scholars and critics. As far back as 1985, author Neil Postman warned about Americans, in his memorable phrase, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” In the wake of the media fascination with such stories as Gary Condit, the question became not whether nothing in America was private anymore. Rather, the more pointed concern was whether anything was public anymore. What we once considered vital public issues had been so crowded out of our media discourse that they no longer received the kind of attention that allowed society to adequately comprehend or address them.

In a sense, if a society is defined by what it talks about, what did that say about the values of American society at the beginning of the 21st century? And if that has changed, what does that change imply about us now?