May 25, 2007

Iraq Dominates PEJ’s First Quarterly NCI Report

A Quarterly Report of the PEJ News Coverage Index Spring 2007

The war in Iraq has dwarfed all other topics in the American news media in the early months of 2007—taking up more than three times the space devoted to the next most popular subject. But only a portion of this has focused on the state of things in Iraq itself, and even less about the plight of Iraqis and the internal affairs of their country, according to a new study of the American news media.

The majority of the war coverage, 55%, has been about the political debate back in Washington. Less than a third, 31%, has been focused on events in Iraq itself. And about half that coverage has been about American soldiers there.

In all, just one in six stories about the war has been focused on Iraqis, Iraqi casualties or the internal political affairs of their country, the report finds, while more than eight in ten have focused primarily on Americans or American policy.

These are some of the findings drawn from the first quarterly report of the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, a weekly content analysis of a broad cross-section of national news media.

The findings, among other things, show how the Iraqi war hangs over the presidency of George W. Bush and all other political activity in Washington. They also suggest the extent to which the U.S. media is covering the war from Washington, and with a U.S.-centric lens. This may be understandable given Americans’ intense interest in resolving the conflict—and given the difficulties of covering the war on the ground. One question is whether Americans are learning everything they need to evaluate the state of affairs in Iraq and what would happen if American troops left.

Beyond Iraq, only one other story stands out above any others—and the war even looms as part of it. The presidential campaign of 2008, has received startlingly heavy coverage even though key primaries are nine months away, and the general election won’t occur for nearly a year and a half. The campaign has taken up 7% of the newshole so far this year, nearly twice the amount of the next most heavily covered story not related to Iraq. And in that, coverage of Democrats outweighed that of Republicans by roughly three-to-one.

These findings are derived from a quarterly look at data from the weekly PEJ News Coverage Index, a research initiative by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that began in January. The Project’s weekly NCI, which examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media, 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 methodology.)

But there are limits to what can safely be interpreted from the data on a weekly basis. In quarterly segments, it is possible to compare channels, timeslots, TV programs and newspapers, and to probe coverage of particular stories and topics much more deeply.

Among other findings from the first 90 days of the year:

  • Even though both party nominations are wide open, Democrats have received nearly triple the coverage of Republicans (61% versus 24%) in the first three months of the year (before the GOP began holding debates). And two candidates have grabbed most of that, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
  • Virtually none of the campaign coverage in these early days tells much about where candidates would take the country, their policy proposals, record or character. Nine out of ten stories were about tactics and horse race.
  • The three cable news channels have been distinct from one another in the news they choose to cover. Fox News has devoted less time to the war in Iraq, for instance, and attached itself a good deal more to the death of Anna Nicole Smith. CNN was more of a mix, standing out primarily for a greater focus on immigration. MSNBC’s mix of stories suggests an inside-the-Beltway agenda.
  • In contrast, even as the ratings positions among the three evening newscasts are changing for first time in more than a decade, the lineup of what is covered on the programs is nearly indistinguishable. Whatever differences viewers are noticing, it is in the way the stories are put together—the writing and reporting— and in the manner of the anchors. It is not in the topics being covered.
  • The online news sites studied have the broadest news agenda of all and the widest mix of international stories. Online news was also the only sector in which the events on the ground in Iraq—rather than the Washington-based policy debate—was the biggest story of the year to date.
  • The controversy over the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys never really generated broad public interest, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s crucial Congressional testimony was overshadowed by the massacre on the Virginia Tech campus. But the controversy—a tale of Beltway intrigue—was the fourth-biggest story in the first three months of the year, outpacing even such stories as Anna Nicole Smith, which finished 8th.*

The quarterly report of the PEJ News Coverage Index examined 17,416 stories that appeared between December 31, 2006 and March 31, 2007. The index includes 13 newspapers, eight radio outlets (a mix of talk, public radio and headline feeds), five of the top online sites, several hours a day of all three cable news channels and both network morning and evening newscasts and is believed to be the most comprehensive ongoing audit of the American press anywhere.

Top News Stories of the First Quarter of 2007

Rank
Top Stories
Percent of Newshole (%)
1 Iraq Policy Debate * 12
2 2008 Campaign 7
3 Events in Iraq * 7
4 Fired US Attorneys 4
5 Iran 3
6 Iraq Homefront * 3
7 CIA Leak/Plame Case 3
8 Anna Nicole Smith 2
9 Democratic led Congress 2
10 Severe Weather/Ice Storms (1/14 – 3/2) 2
* Iraq War Total (a sum of the three starred stories) 22%

 

 

*The story rankings break Iraq coverage into three distinct threads: policy debate, events on the ground and the U.S. homefront. These ranked 1st, 3rd and 6th, respectively. Together they accounted for 22% of all coverage studied.