May 23, 2002

The War on Terrorism

The Face of Morning News

While morning news has softened, it does not strictly resemble its image from last summer.

What were largely lifestyle and celebrity programs last June—and became serious sources of information of overnight events last fall—have now become something of a hybrid. Americans can now see some level of serious news each morning on the networks.

Roughly a quarter of what appears on morning news shows could be categorized as traditional hard news about national and international affairs. That is triple the amount last June, when fewer than one in ten stories (7%) fit that description.

On the other hand, it is still significantly less than the nearly six-in-ten stories (58%) that hard news comprised of morning news in our sample period in October.

Topics on the Morning News Over Time
Percent of Total Stories
All Networks
Hard News 6.9% 58.1% 22.5%
Homeland Security na na 3.6
Celebrity/Entertainment 25.3 12.2 20.0
Crime/Law/Courts 11.5 1.7 13.4
Business/Economy 4.3 2.6 3.3
Science/Technology 5.1 13.5 1.7
Lifestyle 46.7 12.0 38.3
Religion 0.2 0 0.8

And make no mistake, these morning shows are still dominated by stories about gardening, recipes, celebrity chatter and product promotion. The lifestyle and celebrity fare this year has made up roughly three-fifths (58%) of all morning stories, after dropping to just 24% last fall. That, however, is somewhat lower than last summer, when celebrity and lifestyle stories made up nearly 75% of the morning shows.

Indeed, most of the increase in hard news comes at the expense of lifestyle feature stories. Those stories are down 9 percentage points since June (38% now versus 47% in June).

The quotient of interviews with stars of the latest movies and news of celebrity weddings has declined only slightly, from 25% of the stories in June to 23% this year.

If someone were turning to morning programs for news of the day about a subject such as a bombing in the Middle East, one would also find the style of reporting could shift from day to day or hour to hour.

Tyndall finds that morning shows are regularly divided into two components—the first half hour and the final 90 minutes (the Today Show's final hour has been disregarded for this study). The first half hour, he says, is a balance between hard news, business and economic news and crime stories including true crime, such as the Andrea Yates case. The next 90 minutes are filled with celebrity and lifestyle features. "The massive impact that post-September 11th stories had on the morning programs was in their final 90 minutes where celebrity/lifestyle [features] were temporarily supplanted," Tyndall remarks, adding, "The same displacement occurred in November 2000 during the Florida General Election recount."

At times, the coverage consists of live, on-scene reports of the sort seen from Ground Zero following the attacks and Pakistan in the early days of the war in Afghanistan. The Today Show, for exampled, featured Tom Brokaw reporting live from Tel Aviv about a bombing that took place overnight. Or there might be interviews with some of the principal newsmakers such as The Early Show's interview with the mayor of Netanya where one of the bombings occurred.

Those harder stories, though, are scattered amid a largely human-interest approach to the news. At one point, a morning show might give a detailed news report. Another time, this same news might come in quick anchor reads to make room for any number of a features: Good Morning America's piece about how children of a war zone live a normal life, an interview on The Early Show with a man who had near misses at both the World Trade Center and the bombing in Jaffe, or correspondent Martin Fletcher's reflection for the Today Show on what it is like to live in the Middle East.