April 2, 2007

British Hostages Drive the Top U.S. Story

PEJ News Coverage Index March 25 - 30, 2007

On the March 27 edition of NBC’s “Today” show, host Meredith Viera made sure the hostage crisis between Iran and Britain resonated with viewers at home.

“If you think Iran’s capture of those 15 British troops near the Persian Gulf doesn’t affect you,” she cautioned, “you might be in for a rude awakening the next time you fill up your car.”

Later that same day on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” correspondent Jamie McIntyre hammered away at the same issue, noting that the hostage standoff was unfolding just as the U.S. was engaged in major military exercises in the Persian Gulf. “Jittery investors have already sent oil prices to a high for the year on fears that rising tensions could disrupt the 40% of the world’s oil that flows through the Strait of Hormuz,” he added.

The ability to connect Iran’s holding of 15 British sailors and marines to the price at the gas pump is one reason why a crisis that does not directly involve this country was the biggest story overall last week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from March 25-March 30. This new Iranian hostage crisis, which began on March 23, filled 12% of the overall newshole, and was the number one story in three media sectors—online (23%), network TV (11%) and cable (16%).

In a busy news week, the fallout from the eight fired U.S. attorneys was the second biggest story at 11%, making it the third straight week that this subject has exceeded 10% of the overall coverage. Right behind that was the Iraq debate (at 10%), fueled in part by the 51-47 U.S. Senate vote on March 29 to set a troop withdrawal timetable. Next (at 7%) was the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign where a good portion of the coverage was related to the March 22 announcement that Elizabeth Edwards’s cancer had returned. (Katie Couric’s March 25 “60 Minutes” interview with John and Elizabeth Edwards left some viewers complaining that she had been too tough.)

A few medical stories made news last week. A study concluding that the widely-used angioplasty procedure for treating heart patients was no more effective than treatment with drugs was the eighth biggest story at 2%. (It was the fifth biggest story in both newspapers and network TV.) Word that White House press secretary Tony Snow has suffered a recurrence of cancer just missed making the top-10 list, at 1%.

After a three-week hiatus from the top-10 story list, the death of Anna Nicole Smith re-emerged as story #10 last week at 2%. The big news was the official autopsy report that concluded she died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. And as has been the case throughout this tabloid saga, it was cable television—where it was the fifth biggest story at 5% last week—that offered the most coverage.

On April 4, the PEJ will release an Index Special Report examining the coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith story from her death on February 8 to her burial on March 2.

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.)

For all the mounting tension between the U.S. and Iran over that country’s nuclear program and its role in the Iraq fighting, it turned out to be a conflict between Iran and another nation that generated the most news coverage for that topic in 2007.

In the January 10 speech in which he announced his troop “surge” strategy for Iraq, President Bush included a short but toughly worded passage that seemed to threaten military action against Iran. Yet, with the exception of a few cable talkhosts, the prospect of war with Iran did not initially attract much media attention.

But in the week of Feb. 11-16, escalating friction between the U.S. and Iran became the third hottest topic at 7%. (In a Feb.12 “World News Tonight,” interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Diane Sawyer bluntly asked: “Do you personally fear an invasion or an attack by the United States?”) Nothing particularly dramatic occurred to fuel hostilities that week. Instead, the catalyst for much of the media coverage was some Bush administration backtracking after a February 11 military briefing accused the Iranian government of providing weapons being used to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

The following week, the conflict with Iran slid to the sixth biggest story, accounting for 5% of the overall coverage. It then disappeared from the top-10 story list for three weeks before turning up as the sixth biggest story (3%) in the Index for March 18-March 23, with most of the coverage focused on the March 23 seizure of the British forces.

Last week that unresolved standoff—which included videos of the captives and purported confessions—again put Iran at the top of the headlines. It again raised the specter of another war in another Mideast hotspot. In a March 29 story that reinforced the notion of the U.S. a central player in this drama, CNN correspondent Barbara Starr reported that when the captives were first taken and “this incident originally unfolded…U.S. military forces were nearby in the Persian Gulf and were asked by the British to try and help.”

While still finishing second for the week at 11%, coverage of the U.S. attorneys case cooled off from the two previous weeks when it had filled 16% and 18% of the overall newshole.

It was a difficult week for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that included a March 25 New York Times story reporting that documents suggest the AG was more involved in the dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys than he had previously acknowledged. Then Gonzales senior aide Monica Goodling indicated she would take the Fifth Amendment rather than testify about the firings. The big event was the March 29 Congressional testimony of former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson who said he had discussed the issue with his boss on several occasions.

“Under oath and before Congress, the attorney general’s top aide says that Gonzales did not tell the truth,” declared Chris Matthews in the open of his March 29 “Hardball” show. “Does Gonzales have to resign?”

And finally, last week the sad tale of Anna Nicole Smith reached some kind of closure—even as legal issues remain—when the autopsy concluded she died of a lethal combination of numerous prescription drugs. On his March 26 show, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly offered a tough post-mortem on the case.

“No human being needs this volume of drugs,” he said. “This woman was a drug addict.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to a technical error on Monday, March 26, we included CNN's Situation Room instead of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 in this week's sample.