January 22, 2007

Nature, Crime, and Politics Challenge Iraq in the News

PEJ News Coverage Index Jan. 14 - 19, 2007

The tale of two kidnapped teenagers, nature’s assault on California’s citrus crop, and another dose of “Obama-mania” competed with the Iraq crisis for the media’s attention last week, according to the PEJ News Coverage Index.

In the week of January 14-19, when President Bush hit the interview circuit to sell the “surge” plan and the UN reported more than 34,000 Iraqi civilian deaths in the year past, the war was again the leading topic in the news. When combined, the policy debate (the top story at 14%) and violence in Iraq (the fourth-biggest story at 6%) filled one-fifth of the total newshole.

That, however, represented a 50% drop-off from the previous week when Iraq news virtually obscured every other event. (The drop-off would have been even greater were it not for television.)

Several breaking and unfolding stories helped fill that void. They were led by the rescued Missouri boys (second on the main Index at 8%), a saga the press explored both for the ostensibly happy ending and the unanswered and sordid questions.

Vicious storms that wreaked havoc with California’s economy and killed scores in the heartland were the third-most heavily covered story (at 6%). And political rock star Barack Obama’s establishment of an exploratory committee was enough to make the 2008 Presidential race the fifth biggest story at 5%. (The weekend announcements by Sam Brownback, Bill Richardson, and most notably, Hillary Clinton, should keep that category sizzling this week.)

A look inside PEJ’s Index for the week also reveals how the priorities of individual hosts can affect the news agenda. CNN’s Anderson Cooper devoted extensive attention to the kidnapped boys’ story, helping transform it into an even bigger event on cable. His colleague Paula Zahn’s interest in the racially loaded Duke rape case launched that subject onto cable’s top five story list. And on a week in which it snowed in Malibu, Rush Limbaugh’s skepticism about global warming made that subject a top-five radio story.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index, released every Tuesday, is an ongoing study of the news agenda of a wide swath of the American press, measuring the topics covered in 48 different outlets from five sectors of the American media. (See a List of Outlets.) The Index is an attempt to provide an empirical look at what the media are and aren't covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.) We believe it is the largest continuing study of the media agenda ever attempted. (See About the News Coverage Index.)

The coverage patterns for the top two stories in the main Index also highlight the different priorities emerging among media platforms. Though the Iraq policy debate accounted for less than 10% of the coverage in the online, radio and newspaper sectors, for instance, it consumed far more on television (18% of cable news and 25% of network evening and morning news coverage). The level of coverage got a boost on January 16, when Bush defended his strategy in an interview with PBS anchor Jim Lehrer—which was picked up elsewhere and created even more focus on the war on PBS.

It was cable, in turn, that seized on the Missouri teens’ tale. The medium devoted 15% of its air time to that subject in our index, compared with 3% in newspapers and 1% on radio. That suggests that there is something to the impression that cable has elevated the media’s fascination with emotionally charged, true-crime cases, such as the Laci Peterson murder and the Natalee Holloway disappearance. One feature of this is a parade of analysts, observers and so-called experts, some of whom may have at best tangential knowledge of the story.

Cooper’s coverage of the Missouri case, for example, included an interview with Ed Smart, the father of teenager Elizabeth Smart whose 2002 abduction attracted massive media attention. “I think the one thing that’s so important is that these [Missouri] kids know it’s not their fault,” Smart told viewers in a soft, soothing voice.

Every sector except online treated the 2008 presidential campaign as a top-five story, thanks to the buzz surrounding Obama. Not all the coverage has been positive. Fox News Channel, for instance, picked up and ran wiith the story that Hillary Clinton had leaked word that Obama was educated at a radical Islamic madrassah as a child in Indonesia. Both camps denied the story as false and irresponsible.

What is undeniable is how the Illinois senator and New York senator have been inextricably linked in the coverage—even before Hillary’s announcement. On the Jan. 16 ABC newscast, correspondent George Stephanopoulos cited the three “big” advantages Obama had over Clinton: “He is the face of change.” He is “the only candidate who was against the war from the start.” And “he is going to cut into her support among African-American voters.”

If this kind of horserace coverage seems grossly premature, be warned there are presidential debates scheduled in New Hampshire on April 4 and 5. Yes, in 2007.

The bottom half of last week’s top 10 story list also included the conclusion of the Democrats’ 100-hour agenda in Congress (4%), the events surrounding the Martin Luther King holiday (2%), and the botched hanging of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother (2%).

The seventh place story at 4% was about U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. And that coverage took a twist on January 16 when MSNBC aired a discussion about whether the hit show “24”—in which agent Kiefer Sutherland tries to stop terrorists from detonating nukes—is an example of “fear mongering” that “benefit[s] the Bush administration.”

“The American people do know the difference between fact and fiction,” retorted Democratic strategist Michael Feldman, arguing that the program isn’t paying dividends for the administration.

Finally, there was a fight for the last spot on the main top story list between two Washington journalism stories. As the week moved on, the confoundingly convoluted Scooter Libby trial—expected to include testimony from such celebrity Beltway journalists as Tim Russert and Bob Woodward—dropped off the list. It was supplanted by tributes to the man who spent a career skewering the Washington culture—humorist Art Buchwald, who died on January 17.

An ABC obit of Buchwald showed a clip of him paying tribute to the president who was a columnist’s best friend, all the while turning 60’s political history on its head.

“We’re all grateful to Nixon,” Buchwald said. “He was our Camelot.”

Even posthumously, journalists still have Nixon to kick around.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ