May 23, 2002

The War on Terrorism

Month by Month

Were it not for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the story of network television this year would be an even clearer trend toward its pre-September appearance.

In January, less than half of the evening news, and less than a quarter of the morning shows, could be considered traditional hard news.

By February, during the Olympics and a lull in war activities, that number had fallen further to 44% on the evening news. That is lower than the summer of 2001, when Gary Condit dominated the news and some critics were bemoaning that journalism had fallen to a new modern low of sensationalism and questionable priorities. Lifestyle coverage, especially involving the Olympics, surged to over a quarter of all evening news stories.

2002 Evening News Topics by Month
 
Hard News 48% 44% 64% 79%
  Gov't 6 7 5 1
  Mil 20 11 18 9
  Domestic Aff. 11 10 14 7
  Foreign Aff. 11 16 27 62
Celebrity News 2 2 2 0
Crime/Law/Courts 14 14 9 5
Business/Economy 19 10 5 5
Science & Tech. 2 2 2 1
Lifestyle Features 15 27 14 6
Religion * 1 4 4
Total 100 100 100 100

Mornings in February had become even more focused away from the war. Hard news had fallen to 15% of stories. Lifestyle pieces now made up more than half (55%) and celebrity coverage another 15%. It was a thorough return to the pre September 11th summer formula.

The decline in serious news continued into March, well after the Olympics had ended. But when the Middle East conflict erupted in the middle of that month, there was a notable shift back to seriousness.

On the evening news, there was a 20-percentage point increase in hard news over February, and a 13-percentage point decline in lifestyle coverage.

In the mornings, there was a nine-percentage point increase in hard news, and a drop of 27 percentage points in lifestyle stories.

  That hard news focus continued into April. In the first week of the month, hard news, primarily that of the Middle East conflict, accounted for nearly eight in ten evening news stories. Foreign affairs made up fully 62% of the stories on the evening news.

In the mornings, 41% of stories were hard news. Lifestyle and celebrity made up half the stories.

2002 Morning News Topics by Month
 
Hard News 23.4% 15.1 23.9 41.3
  Gov't 4.1 1.2 1.5 0.5
  Mil 4.9 1.9 8.3 1.0
  Domestic Aff. 10.4 5.6 9.4 4.4
  Foreign Aff. 4.0 6.4 4.7 35.4
Celebrity News 18.4 15.4 27.3 15.5
Crime/Law/Courts 15.4 10.6 15.7 6.8
Business/Economy 6.3 1.8 2.1 1.0
Science & Tech. 2.3 1.3 1.5 1.5
Lifestyle Features 34.0 54.5 28.3 34.0
Religion 0.2 1.3 1.2 0
Total 100 100 100 100

The Enron scandal also stood out, particularly in the evening news. Though, perhaps to the surprise of many, it did not dominate, accounting for just 9% of the stories on the nightly news in the first 13 weeks of the year. Mostly—by a factor of about three-to-one—it was covered as strictly a business story. Only 34 stories in all focused on the regulatory or political aspects of the Enron case. And in all only two stories focused on Enron as a crime. Most of the Enron coverage, too, was concentrated in January.

In the mornings, Enron was a story, but not a huge one, accounting for less than 3% of all stories. Interestingly, morning news was twice as likely to push the political or regulatory focus of the Enron story as the nightly news was.

By comparison, the Andrea Yates case about the Houston woman who drowned her children was actually a bigger story on morning television than Enron.

The child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church was also a notable story on television, though smaller than Enron. It made up 2% of all stories in the evening news, and 1% of stories in the mornings.

In morning news, indeed, the scandal in the church was only as big a story as Valentines Day, and was outstripped by the trial of the Hockey Dad, the San Francisco dog mauling, and Andrea Yates.