March 15, 2005

2005 Annual Report - Cable TV Content Analysis

Differences among Cable Channels (Iraq War Reportage)

Our content analysis also shows measurable differences in what each of the cable networks puts on the air. This study made no attempt to identify bias, or whether one network tilted to the Democrats or Republicans. Some more basic distinctions, however, were evident.

Fox was measurably more one-sided than the other networks, and Fox journalists were more opinionated on the air. The news channel was also decidedly more positive in its coverage of the war in Iraq, while the others were largely neutral. At the same time, the story segments on the Fox programs studied did have more sources and shared more about them with audiences.

CNN tended to air more points of view in its stories than others, and its reporters rarely offered their own opinions, but the news channel’s stories were noticeably thinner in the number of sources and the information shared about them.

MSNBC consistently fell between its two rivals on most indices.

In the degree to which journalists are allowed to offer their own opinions, Fox stands out. Across the programs studied, nearly seven out of ten stories (68%) included personal opinions from Fox’s reporters — the highest of any outlet studied by far.

Just 4% of CNN segments included journalistic opinion, and 27% on MSNBC.

Fox journalists were even more prone to offer their own opinions in the channel’s coverage of the war in Iraq. There 73% of the stories included such personal judgments. On CNN the figure was 2%, and on MSNBC, 29%.

The same was true in coverage of the Presidential election, where 82% of Fox stories included journalist opinions, compared to 7% on CNN and 27% on MSNBC.

Those findings seem to challenge Fox’s promotional marketing, particularly its slogan, “We Report. You Decide.”

Some observers might argue that opinions clearly offered as such are more honest than a slant subtly embedded in the sound bites selected or questions asked. But that was not the case here. Given the live formats on cable, the opinions of reporters and anchors are often embedded in questions or thrown in as asides. Only occasionally were they labeled as commentary.

Journalist Opinion in Iraq War Coverage, Cable News

Percent of Iraq War stories

CNN
Fox
MSNBC
Total
No Opinion
98%
27%
71%
70%
Opinion
2
73
29
30
Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Tone of Coverage

The study this year also tried to assess the tone of coverage.4 When it came to the war, Fox again looked different from the others by being distinctly more positive than negative. Fully 38% of Fox segments were overwhelmingly positive in tone, more than double the 14% of segments that were negative. Still, stories were as likely to be neutral as positive (39%) and another 9% were multi-subject stories for which tone did not apply.

On CNN, in contrast, 41% of stories were neutral in tone on the 20 days studied, and positive and negative stories were almost equally likely — 20% positive, 23% negative. Some 15% were multi-faceted and not coded for tone.

MSNBC’s stories about the war were most likely to include several issues or subjects, so that no one area could be coded for tone. Fully four in ten stories were of this nature. Otherwise, the network’s coverage, like CNN’s, was more neutral (28%) with positive and negative stories almost equally prevalent, (16% positive and 17% negative).

 

Tone of Iraq War Coverage on Cable News

Percent of Iraq War stories

CNN
Fox
MSNBC
Total
Positive
20%
38%
16%
24%
Neutral
41
39
28
36
Negative
23
14
17
19
Multi-Subject
15
9
40
21
Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

When it came to election coverage, the majority of stories on every network had no overwhelming tone. Here MSNBC stood out as being twice as likely to air candidate and issue stories with a positive tone as with a negative tone. CNN’s coverage, on the other hand, was more likely to be negative. Fox was divided equally among positive and negative stories.

Tone of Election Coverage on Cable News

Percent of election stories

CNN
Fox
MSNBC
Total
Positive
10%
16%
17%
15%
Neutral
62
56
32
47
Negative
17
17
8
13
Multi-Subject
11
12
42
25
Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Only weeks after being installed as CNN’s president, Jonathan Klein proclaimed an end to the shout fests that have come to characterize cable news, canceling the network’s archetypical Crossfire program and declining to renew the contract of the conservative talker Tucker Carlson. “We always want to be provocative,” Klein said. “But there is a numbness that has set in among those head-butting festivals. I’m convinced that the political brainiacs we have at CNN can come up with a better way to engage the audience.”

In place of shouting, Klein said, he wanted to return to “roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling.”

“CNN is a different animal,” Klein told the New York Times. “We report the news. Fox talks about the news. They’re very good at what they do and we’re very good at what we do.”5

Is there evidence that CNN is more fact-oriented, more neutral and more tied to storytelling than rivals Fox or MSNBC in 2004? Where does each station fall heading as the new year unfolds?

CNN, according to the data, does indeed seem to offer more neutral reporting. Its adherence to storytelling, though, seems to be more of a mixed bag. Its NewsNight with Aaron Brown is heavy on such pieces, but its noontime programming spends less time on packaged pieces than Fox or MSNBC.

MSNBC fits somewhere in the middle on most of these measures, perhaps waiting to see which approach bears most fruit.