March 7, 2007

Wicked Storms, Wobbly Stocks, and Wounded Soldiers Make News

PEJ News Coverage Index Feb. 25 - March 2, 2007

Two dramatic breaking events and two long-simmering story lines were among a list of subjects competing for media attention in an unusually heavy news week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from February 25-March 2.

The breaking news stories were very different kinds of events—tornadoes in the South and a financial plunge on Wall Street. The simmering, slower developing subjects were the growing controversy about treatment of soldiers at home—for the second week running—and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

They joined two stories that typically dominate the Index—the 2008 Presidential race and the debate over Iraq policy—on the roster of top stories last week.

The devastating March 1 tornadoes that swept through the South and left 20 dead was the fourth biggest story (filling 6% of the overall newshole). The Dow’ s 416-point freefall on February 27—the biggest single day loss since after 9/11—was right behind as fifth biggest story (6%).

The bulk of the stock plunge coverage occurred on February 27 and 28, and the storms were news for just the last two days of the week. Even so, the level of network TV coverage —11% for the storm and 9% for the market drop—helped propel those events onto the top story list for the full week.

At the same time, two issues that are intertwined with the “war on terror,” but have been largely eclipsed by ongoing Iraq coverage surfaced last week. Triggered by the bombing near Vice President Dick Cheney, reports of a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda earned the conflict in Afghanistan its heaviest coverage of the year and made it last week’s seventh biggest story (at 4%).

And the question of the medical care delivered to our wounded soldiers spilled into two different categories—the Iraq homefront (third biggest story at 6%) and events inside Iraq (sixth story at 5%).

There were two “news hooks” that accelerated coverage of the war casualties. One was the dramatic reappearance of former ABC anchor Bob Woodruff, who suffered severe head injuries while covering Iraq. The other was the continuing fallout over the Washington Post’s February 18-19 series exposing major problems at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center—with several top Army officials losing their jobs.

John McCain’s announcement of his candidacy on David Letterman’s show, meanwhile, helped make the 2008 presidential campaign, by the narrowest of margins, the top story at 7%. The second-place Iraq policy debate story (6%) was spurred by news that the U.S. will attend a regional conference with Iran and Syria, a decision some of the media played as a reversal of policy.

With the large number of significant stories vying for attention, last week was the first time since PEJ’s Index launched in January that the biggest story failed to fill 10% of the overall newshole. It’s also the first time that the top story and fifth biggest story were separated by a mere percentage point.

Though the Anna Nicole Smith legal mess was the eighth biggest story at 4%, that was the lowest amount of coverage since her February 8 death. But if the Smith saga is slowly slipping from public view, one re-emerging newsmaker was former vice-president Al Gore who was featured in two top 10 stories—the 2008 presidential race and the February 25 Oscar ceremonies (which finished 10th at 3%).

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

Even though the attack near Cheney on a U.S. base in Afghanistan and the Dow’s dive both occurred on February 27, the trajectories of those stories differed. Much of the subsequent stock market coverage featured Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s reassuring February 28 remarks to Congress hat “there didn't seem to be any single trigger of the market correction we saw yesterday.”

Conversely, coverage of the Cheney episode quickly expanded to focus on fears that the situation in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan was growing much more ominous.

In his February 27 evening news story on the suicide bombing, CBS correspondent David Martin reported that “26,000 American troops are gearing for what is expected to be a spring of heavy fighting against the Taliban, now operating out of virtual safe haven in Pakistan.” In another piece of disquieting news, he added that American officials now fear that Osama bin Laden feels physically secure enough to meet “with his senior leaders face-to-face and plot attacks on the U.S.”

That dovetailed with a page-1 February 28 New York Times story concluding that the strike near Cheney, “demonstrated that Al Qaeda and the Taliban appear stronger and more emboldened in the region than at any time since the American invasion of the country five years ago.”

Until now, the conflict in Afghanistan had never generated more than 2% of the weekly news coverage, half of what we saw last week. But like the escalating U.S. tensions with Iran—which emerged as a major story in mid-February after simmering on the back burner—the prospect of a bloodier conflict in Afghanistan could become a larger and more regular element of the news menu.

It’s not accurate to say that the media have ignored those wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. But last week, the intensity of that coverage seemed to increase notably—perhaps because of the Post’s Walter Reed investigation. (Newsweek’s cover story, “Failing our Wounded,” included a photo of a female soldier who had lost  both legs.)

Now in its second week of sustained coverage, the message last week was that the problems go deeper than Walter Reed Army Hospital, where the Washington Post expose revealed substandard conditions for outpatient care.

During a March 1 story on the military’s ailing medical system, NBC’s newscast included this memorable quote from a veterans’ advocate: “We don’t want to throw a band-aid on a sunken chest wound. The system is hemorrhaging.” On February 28, Bill O’Reilly began his Fox News Channel show with an appeal to raise funds for the “Disabled Veterans Life Memorial Foundation,” which is working to build a memorial in Washington.

But some of the most dramatic coverage came when Bob Woodruff—who spent 36 days unconscious after being wounded in Iraq—returned to ABC after 13 months. In advance of his special that night, “World News Tonight” ran a February 27 piece that showed Woodruff re-learning to speak with a helmet covering his damaged skull. The segment was titled “The homecoming.” (The next night, Woodruff reported for the newscast about the growing number of veterans with brain injuries.)

A comeback of a different sort made news last week when Al Gore’s global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won an Oscar on February 25. That, not surprisingly, triggered some fresh speculation about Gore’s 2008 presidential intentions. The former veep played along, performing in an Oscar telecast bit (watched by about 40 million people) in which he feigned a presidential announcement.

That level of exposure meant that the man who jokingly says “I used to be the next President of the United States,” was—even if only temporarily—fair game for pundits.

“In the entertainment world, if Al Gore is your highlight, you’re in big trouble,” snapped radio talker Rush Limbaugh the next day as he trashed the Oscar show as hopelessly boring. “If it weren’t for his varicose veins, the guy would be totally colorless.”