May 25, 2007

Iraq Dominates PEJ’s First Quarterly NCI Report

Cable News

Looking more closely at the cable universe itself—among the three channels as well as across day parts—PEJ found distinct differences between the three channels, far more than discerned between the three commercial network channels or newspapers.

As an example, we found that coverage of the three biggest stories of the quarter—Iraq policy debate, the 2008 campaign and Anna Nicole Smith differed greatly across the three channels and day parts.

Overall, MSNBC and CNN were much more consumed with the war in Iraq than was Fox. MSNBC, for instance, devoted nearly a third of the time studied to the war (26% on the policy debate, 3% on events on the ground and 2% the homefront). Fox, by contrast, spent less than half that much time on the war—15% in all, (10% on the policy debate, 3% on events in Iraq and 1% on the homefront).

Percent of Newshole Devoted Three Major Stories on Cable TV
Dec. 31, '06 – Mar. 31, '07

Iraq War Total
(all 3 threads)

2008 Presidential Campaign

Anna Nicole Smith

CNN

25

7

4

Fox News

15

9

10

MSNBC

31

14

6

All Cable

23%

9%

7%

On CNN, Iraq coverage totaled 25%, again mostly focused on policy debate (14%). Events on the ground received 7% of the coverage (coming in second overall) while the homefront trailed at 3%.

MSNBC also spent more time on the presidential campaign than its rivals (14%), compared with 9% on Fox and 7% on CNN.

If Fox was less focused on the Iraq War, what took its place? Mostly—according to the numbers—Anna Nicole Smith. Coverage of her death trailed just barely the airtime spent on the Iraq policy debate, accounting for 9.6% of all the Fox content studied (versus 10.1% for the Iraq policy debate). Fox also stood out for its lack of coverage on the firings of the U.S. attorneys, compared with the other channels. The story, which gained real momentum in mid March, consumed a mere 2% of Fox’s total airtime. CNN devoted twice that percent (4%) and MSNBC four times (8%).

Another interesting comparison is the percent of time devoted to just a few big stories. On MSNBC, more than half of its programming consisted of just four stories. On CNN and Fox, it wasn’t until the 9th and 11th stories respectively that we reached 49%.

Moreover, MSNBC’s four top stories reveal something about the network’s identity. The perennial third-place finisher in the cable news ratings race sometimes seemed to struggle in trying to create a coherent identity and niche. Officials recently stated their intention to focus on Washington politics and policy. The study demonstrates that strategy.

The network’s top four stories—the Iraq policy debate, the 2008 campaign, the fired U.S. attorneys, and the Valerie Plame leak/Scooter Libby trial—are all, at their core, about Washington and politics. When added together, they accounted for 55% of MSNBC’s total coverage. (The same four stories filled 26% of the Fox News Channel’s airtime and 27% of CNN’s newshole.)That emphasis on Beltway topics is even more obvious in a prime-time MSNBC lineup of hosts that includes former Jimmy Carter speechwriter Chris Matthews, outspoken liberal Keith Olbermann, veteran conservative host Tucker Carlson, and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of MSNBC’s prime time airtime was consumed by those four stories in the first part of 2007. When it comes to the Fox News Channel, there has long been a debate in media circles about whether the cable ratings leader has a clear conservative tilt or whether it is an antidote to a media landscape dominated by liberals. That argument is beyond of the scope of this report, but Fox gave considerably less coverage than its rivals to two subjects that were largely bad news for the Bush administration—the war in Iraq and the U.S. attorneys scandal.

Cable Coverage of Select Stories
Percent of Newshole,

Dec. 31, '06 – Mar. 31, '07
  Iraq War U.S. Attorneys
Fox News 15% 2%
CNN 25% 4%
MSNBC 31% 8%

Aside from its high level of interest in the Anna Nicole Smith saga, one of Fox’s other top-10 stories (that did not make either CNN’s or MSNBC’s list) was a sensational crime tale. The network devoted 2% of its total airtime to the January tale of two Missouri teenage boys who were abducted and ultimately rescued from a man now charged with kidnapping, sodomy and attempted murder.

It is harder to characterize CNN—which fell in the first quarter of 2007 somewhere in between the Fox News Channel and MSNBC in its story selection. The one area of obvious distinction was the network’s emphasis on the immigration debate, which was its sixth biggest story at 4%. The subject was not among MSNBC’s top-10 story list and Fox devoted only 2% of its coverage to the topic. CNN’s attention to the issue stems from the relentless coverage by Lou Dobbs, the host of the network’s 6 pm show, and an outspoken advocate for stricter enforcement of immigration laws. More than one-third (35%) of all immigrations stories—across all the media studied—appeared on the Lou Dobbs’ show.

Cable Differences by Daypart

There are also noticeable differences in cable news depending on the time of day.

Overall, the three channels were much more distinct from each other in the daytime hours. Each had a different top story in the first quarter of the year. Fox viewers were most likely to learn about Anna Nicole (17%), while MSNBC talked primarily about the upcoming elections (16%) and CNN spent most time on Iraq policy debate (11%).

Again, MSNBC stood out here for spending more time on just a few stories, a narrower or more focused or targeted agenda. The top three stories—the campaign, Iraq policy and Anna Nicole Smith—amounted to 41% of all the daytime programming studied, versus about 25% devoted to the top three stories on Fox and CNN.

Percent of Newshole Devoted Three Major Stories on Cable TV
Dec. 31, '06 – Mar. 31, '07

 

Iraq War Total (all 3 threads)

2008 Presidential Campaign

Anna Nicole Smith

Cable Daytime

15%

7%

11%

CNN

20

2

5

Fox News

6

5

17

MSNBC

18

16

10

Cable Evening

25%

10%

6%

CNN

26

8

4

Fox News

17

10

8

MSNBC

36

13

4

In the later programs, the biggest difference was in the degree of emphasis, rather than in the selection of stories themselves. All three channels led with the Iraq policy debate, but MSNBC spent more than twice as much of its airtime (30%) on the subject than Fox (12%) or CNN (15%). The second story was also the same across channels—the 2008 elections—again with MSNBC devoting a greater percent to the topic than the other two (13% versus 10% for Fox and 8% for CNN). After that, the three channels diverged. Fox continued it primetime focus on Anna Nicole (8%), while CNN moved to events in Iraq (7%) and MSNBC talked about the fired U.S. attorneys (10%).