May 23, 2002

The War on Terrorism

The Face of Evening News

The new findings do not mean the evening news programs are identical to before September 11th.

While the amount of hard news contained in the programs is similar, the makeup of that hard news has shifted.

Hard News in the Evenings
As a Percent of Coverage Overall
 
Government 5.2% 5.3%
Military 5.6 15.8
Domestic Affairs 17.8 11.6
  Homeland security n/a 4.5
Foreign Affairs 16.9 21.2
Total 49.5 53.9

Coverage of the military and foreign affairs, for instance, has supplanted many domestic issues. Military stories are up three-fold since last summer, to 16% of all stories. Coverage of domestic issues, such as concerns of an energy crisis or the HMO bill of rights, is down from 18% of stories in June to 12% this year.

And if homeland security stories are removed, coverage of domestic affairs this year drops further, to just 7% of the nightly news.

The number of homeland security stories on the evening news (5%) may strike some people as surprisingly low. And the bulk of these stories came in January, suggesting that on the network news at least, that topic was considered somewhat played out by early this year.

This decline in domestic affairs coverage, including the low level of homeland security stories, seems significant. It suggests that in the face of major news events, the networks are less inclined to shift from feature coverage than they are to stop covering certain areas of hard news—exchanging one area of hard news for another.

It is "like an on-off switch," according to Tyndall. "Ultra heavy news days are maximum hard news. All other days (even marginally heavy news days) are half-&-half."

"What was remarkable about the September 11th crisis (and before that the Florida recount, the Lewinsky impeachment and the Gulf War, for example)," he adds, "was the protracted sequence of successive days on which that rule was violated."

Traditionally religion and business don't rise to front-page coverage and are considered something in between hard news and feature stories. Religion stories are often more about spirituality and morality, and business more about your money or Wall Street interests. This year, however, saw two significant news events that fell under these topics: the sex scandals in the Catholic Church and the collapse of Enron.

Adding all of these stories to the traditional hard news, many of which were feature side stories rather than straight news accounts, would bring that category to 63%.

Still, roughly one in five stories was a traditional lifestyle feature such as male nannies gaining acceptance as caregivers on NBC, the fattest cities in America on ABC or predictions for next winter's El Nino on CBS.

Why is this?

One possible explanation is that this is audience-driven—that Americans will watch only a certain amount of serious news before they need the program leavened by something else. Audience demand is usually hard to pin down in television. The fact is audiences have shriveled as network news has gotten softer over the years. And the last six months have seen an upturn in audience as the broadcasts, at least initially, carried a greater percentage of hard news.

There are other explanations to consider as well.

The first is that the dramatic and sustained cutbacks in resources and staffing at the networks have made it enormously difficult for network television journalism to cover world events, especially over any sustained period of time. The networks, in effect, were staffed for a pre-September 11th world and basically remain so.

When it comes to foreign coverage, for instance, Tyndall's numbers show that "the consequence of mid-90's cutbacks in foreign coverage has never been that major overseas stories suffer." Often, however, the networks jump from crisis to crisis, parachuting in reporters, producers and photographers. What gets cut, Tyndall finds, are the medium-sized, more sustained stories like the financial collapse of Argentina this year.

The second factor is that even if the networks' staffs could be stretched, the cost of doing so—or adding the staff to do so—is no longer considered acceptable.

Instead, the nightly network newscasts have redefined news as breaking or feature. With this definition, they are capable of doing a superb job of covering hard news that is fast-breaking—temporarily throwing their limited resources all in one direction.

But as these breaking stories slow down, whether they are the war on terrorism, the implications of Enron or the crisis in the Catholic Church, the networks return to more familiar formulae, even if the stories themselves remain unresolved.

Sustained coverage of the incremental has largely been lost. It is the kind of journalism that advances stories perhaps more slowly through what used to be a normal practice—beat reporting. Assigning a journalist to cover a particular topic, region or issue day-in and day-out was for the most part lost as budgets shrank. Yet this may be precisely the kind of journalism that builds an informed audience over time. Because of the reach of network news, even now, the absence of this kind of sustained coverage influences the news agenda of all other journalism.

The third explanation is that the executives, after over 20 years of lightening the diet of network news, have come to program their newscasts a certain way. They have developed certain assumptions, beats and sources, and have shed themselves of hard news reporters in favor of feature reporters who can service their magazine programs. Again, Tyndall finds this formula of half-hard half-softer in roughly 90%-to-95% of evening broadcasts each year.

Some combination of all these factors is probably at play. But they suggest the idea that network television news can substantially change is far more complicated, and unlikely, than some observers had hoped last fall.

In foreign news, for example, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the bulk of it coming since March 15, accounted for more than half (58%) of all the foreign affairs coverage on the nightly news this year. The kidnapping and subsequent death of reporter Daniel Pearl comprised another 7%, a sign of TV journalism's capacity to be captivated by stories focused around one individual.

All other foreign stories paled. Afghanistan, for instance, made up just 4% of all foreign coverage. President Bush's trip to Asia and various stories involving Iraq each made up 3%. Tensions between India and Pakistan and the Yemen terror crackdown came next, each accounting for 2%.

Why the big jump in serious news again in March with the Israeli-Palestinian flareup, after months of getting softer? The news itself doesn't fully explain it. Al Quaeda and Taliban troops remain in Afghanistan to this day. The heaviest fighting with American and allied troops, indeed, occurred in 2002, with the battle during operation Anaconda in March. The second heaviest fighting may be occurring now, with operation Condor. The stories of the search for Osama Bin Laden and the struggle for stable democracy in Afghanistan could easily have become major stories.

One reason may be that Israel remains a place where the networks, even with their cutbacks in resources, still maintain bureaus.

Other topics that can be treated as either serious or soft news shifted between this year and last. Crime coverage, which some researchers argue has been rising in recent years, dropped to almost nothing (4% of stories) last Fall. It is back up to 12%, the same as last summer.