February 5, 2007

War Dominates Again, But Breaking News Defines the Week

PEJ News Coverage Index Jan. 28 - Feb. 2, 2007

In a week that included a gloomy intelligence assessment, a battle that killed hundreds of Shiite fanatics, and more charges that Iran has U.S. blood on its hands, the deepening Iraq conflict again commanded much of the media's attention, according PEJ's News Coverage Index.

Iraq-related news filled more than a quarter of the overall newshole in the week from January 28 to February 2.

The top story was the internal debate over Iraq policy (15% of the Index newshole). The debate has led the way in three of the five weeks this year. Violence on the ground (third place at 6%) was the second part of the Iraq story. That was matched by allegations that Iran is increasingly involved in that bloodshed (also at 6%). It’s worth noting that the killing of more than 130 Iraqis in a February 3 bombing attack came after the Index deadline. The war was an even bigger story on television and radio than in print or online.

For the third week this year, the 2008 Presidential race was a top-five story (it was the biggest story in the previous week’s Index). This time it was the second leading story at 9%, thanks to controversial comments from Hillary Clinton and especially, Joe Biden.

With a highly touted UN report concluding that homo sapiens were “very likely” the cause of global warming, that subject made its first Index appearance as a top story (5%).

A look at last week’s news landscape also reveals the power of dramatic, breaking news to rearrange media priorities. The Feb. 2 tornados that took 20 lives in central Florida generated only one day of stories for this Index. But driven by non-stop cable attention, it still ended up as the ninth biggest story of the week at 3%.

The coverage of two other breaking stories on the top-10 list probably said as much about the media as about the subject matter itself. One was the intense (at least some consumers thought excessive) attention to death of Kentucky derby winner Barbaro (at 2%). The other was a bizarre false alarm in Boston that included many journalists among its victims (3%).

PEJ’s News Coverage Index, released every Tuesday, is an ongoing study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the American media. (See a List of Outlets.) The Index is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics 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 systematic study of the media agenda ever attempted. (See About the News Coverage Index.)

Coverage of the presidential race last week—which was the heaviest on cable (13% of the air time)—was again dominated by Democrats. But it was not in a flattering way. Hillary Clinton made news with a suspicious rephrasing of a question. Asked how she would deal with evil world leaders, the former First Lady responded: “What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?” That provoked much laughter and later, her apparent denial that she was referring to her less-than-always-faithful husband.

But that remark paled next to the misstep that dominated coverage of Joe Biden’s January 31 presidential kickoff. After saying that Barack Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean," Biden launched a damage-control media tour that included a January 31 chat with “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart and a February 1 appearance with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

“I wasn’t making a historical statement. I was trying to compliment a colleague,” Biden told a sympathetic Matthews. “I sometimes say things inartfully.”

The encounter with a wisecracking Stewart was more lighthearted, but also more challenging for Biden. When the senator said he’d spoken to Obama in the wake of his remarks, Stewart quickly interrupted with a theatrical “I BET YOU DID,” as the audience roared.

At the same time Biden was digging himself out of a hole, the media was being sucked into the biggest Boston hoax since the infamous 1989 case in which Charles Stuart killed his wife but initially convinced the city and media that the assailant was a black man. Those tuning into CNN on January 31 saw near-breathless live coverage of a possible major terror plot that included shots of snarled Boston traffic, swarming law enforcement personnel, and a tense press conference by local officials.

Alas, the culprit was not Al Qaeda, but the Cartoon Network. When the suspicious packages proved to be part of a promotional campaign for the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” show, Boston was embarrassed, the mainstream media were duped, and Turner Broadcasting was out $2 million in restitution. (The press did relatively little to explain why this created panic in Boston, but not in the nine other cities where the Cartoon Network had placed similar devices.)

If there were any winners here, they may have been “new media” practitioners who figured this one out early. (One blogger, while noting the “the media has been going nuts all day in Boston,” quickly linked the suspicious devices to the cartoon.) The popular liberal blog Daily Kos summed things with the headline: “Morons in Boston.” By the end of the week, three clips related to the incident—including the bizarre press conference rantings of the two young men arrested —were among the most viewed YouTube videos.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the episode generated the most coverage in the online sector, where it logged in as the fifth biggest story at 6%.

The story that finished last on the top 10 list raised also raised questions—this time about the media priorities. On January 29, after a long battle with injuries suffered at the Preakness, the promising race horse Barbaro was euthanized. His demise was only a two-day story—all of the coverage occurred on January 29 and 30. But it made the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe and led the ABC evening newscast on January 29. (Barbaro got the most coverage, 4%, on network news.)

In a Washington Post Style section tribute on January 30, an “appreciation” of Barbaro was published above one for the late Rev. Robert Drinan, the former Massachusetts Congressman and anti-war activist, and the only Catholic priest ever elected to Congress. After getting some reader complaints about that decision, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell tackled the issue in her column, acknowledging that Drinan’s “appreciation should have been on top.’”

“That said,” she added, “the death of Barbaro was a compelling story.”

So apparently, was Super Bowl XLI, which came in as the seventh-biggest overall story and the third-biggest front-page newspaper story in this week’s Index. There are always some well-worn angles in the run up to the big game, including the over-hyped commercials and the extensive security precautions. But this year provided a different theme that drove some of the pre-game coverage—the first two African-American coaches ever to participate in the event.

“Milestone resonates beyond NFL: Matchup of black coaches carries social, emotional weight,” declared the headline on USA Today’s Feb. 2 front page story.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ