July 30, 2007

The Media’s Summer of Terror Jitters Continues

PEJ News Coverage Index July 22 - July 27, 2007

Talk of terrorism was all over the mainstream news media last week.

Like many outlets, ABC’s July 25 nightly newscast reported on the “dry run” warning issued by the Transportation Security Administration after several strange devices—such as a block of cheese and cell phone charger—were confiscated from airport passengers. “The concern was whether terrorists were conducting dress rehearsals for a possible attack,” explained correspondent Lisa Stark. “Given the heightened security worries this summer, officials aren’t taking any chances.”

That same night, after a story on the battle against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, CNN’s Lou Dobbs brought the threat closer to home. He reported on Air Force General Victor Renuart’s concern that “there could be Al-Qaeda cells in this country” and the general’s belief that more military units are needed “to cope with the aftermath of any nuclear, chemical or biological attack within the United States.”

A New York Daily News story asked a panel of experts to grade the country’s war on terror. “Turns out they’ve got a bad feeling in their guts, too” the article stated, referring to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff’s famous “gut feeling” that the U.S. faces heightened terror risks this summer. “The overall effort rates no better than a ‘C.’” The disquieting headline read: “Experts: U.S. still not safe.”

The nation’s effort to combat terrorism was not the biggest story last week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from July 22-27. That designation went to the 2008 Presidential campaign, which filled 12% of the newshole, and was fueled by the July 23 CNN/YouTube debate. The continuing showdown between the Democratic-led Congress and beleaguered attorney general Alberto Gonzales was the second-biggest story at 6%.

But driven by the “dry run” airport scare, terror did finish as the third-biggest story of the week, filling 4% of the newshole. (It got the most coverage on cable at 6%.) And although there have been no successful major attacks in recent weeks, the subject has become a major staple of the media menu.

Starting with the foiled car bomb plot in London on June 29, terrorism has been a top-five story in each of the past five weeks. In the week of July 1-6, the unfolding “doctors’ plot” to launch attacks in London and at the Glasgow airport helped make terror the top story in the media. The week after that, it was Chertoff’s “gut feeling” and a new report warning of a strengthened Al-Qaeda threat that made the top-five story list. And in the period from July 15-20, the National Intelligence Estimate again warning of a reconstituted Al-Qaeda helped make terror concerns the third-biggest story of the week.

Yet this current outbreak of coverage was preceded by a long period of minimal media attention. Terrorism, or the threat of it, was not a top-10 story in nine of the 12 weeks leading up to the discovery of the UK car bomb plot. And only once in that three-month period—with the foiling of a plan to attack New Jersey’s Fort Dix—did the topic make the top-five story roster.

The current terrorism narrative in the news media was triggered by a major event—the failed attack in London. But since then, it has been fueled largely by public pronouncements and reports that have reinforced the sense of heightened vulnerability without divulging specific details or warnings. That may leave many Americans confused about the actual threat level. And in the post 9/11 world, it is enough to trigger a summer of jittery terror news.

The war in Iraq, which the Bush administration and supporters consider a key front in the war on terror while detractors see it as a diversion from that mission, helped round out the top-five story list last week. The policy debate (fourth-biggest story at 4%) was followed by the impact of the war on the homefront (fifth at 3%) and events in Iraq (sixth 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.)

Presidential politics

The much-ballyhooed CNN/YouTube debate—in which citizens prepared video questions for the Democratic candidates—helped make the 2008 campaign the top story of the week. (It led in all sectors, filling 8% of the newshole in newspapers, 13% online, 10% network TV, 15% cable, and 14% radio.)

If the debate was the major event, the big news may have been made when frontrunner Hillary Clinton and lead challenger Barack Obama continued to spar over whether to sit down as President with enemy world leaders.

On NBC’s July 25 “Today Show,” Tim Russert characterized that disagreement as a “microcosm of this campaign…Obama versus Clinton, experience versus change, convention versus inspiration.”

“The tussle could be a turning point in the Democratic race, which has seen little direct engagement between the top two candidates until now,” declared the front-page July 27 Washington Post story.

An Attorney General under fire

The confrontation between Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Congress surfaced as a major story back in March, when the media began focusing on the controversy over a group of eight fired U.S. attorneys. Nearly five months later, tensions between Gonzales and Congress seem to have reached the boiling point. (The topic was the second-biggest story in all five media sectors last week.) And now the question of whether the AG has misled Congress about a number of issues—including the warrantless wiretap program—has brought terms like perjury into the discussion.

The July 24 edition of the CBS nightly newscast contained an exchange in which Gonzales told a Senate committee that “I’ve decided to stay and fix the problem,” only to hear Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse respond: “It appears to a lot of people that you, sir, are in fact the problem.” In what now passes for understatement, PBS’s NewsHour on July 27 described the attorney general as being “under heavy fire.”

Horror in Connecticut

While it is relatively rare for individual crimes to make the top-10 list, news of the vicious home invasion that left three family members dead in Cheshire, Connecticut was the seventh-biggest story last week at 2%. The July 25 treatment of the tragedy on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show suggested both its horror and power—if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. The program looked at how such a nightmare could occur in a “quiet Connecticut town,” and described it as a “crime that goes beyond any kind of category—location or description.”

The story got the most attention on radio (5%), thanks in large part to the efforts of conservative talk host Michael Savage, who angrily blamed the media—which he accused of liberal bias—of not paying enough attention to the horrific crime.

The arrested quarterback, the troubled actress, and the spooky cat

Three stories that generated their share of buzz last week did not end up on PEJ’s top-story list. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s not-guilty plea to charges related to dogfighting generated 2% of the overall coverage and finished just below the top-10 stories. Lindsay Lohan’s alcohol and drug bust, while creating a feeding frenzy on gossip web sites and in the entertainment media, finished further down and generated only 1% of the overall coverage.

Attracting even less coverage, according to the Index, was a riveting tale of animal instinct, and maybe even compassion. Oscar, a cat living in a Rhode Island nursing home, has the ability to determine when someone is near death and curls up at the person’s bedside for the final hours. He reportedly has a perfect track record of 25 such bedside visits in recent years.

Oscar’s exploits were written up in the New England Journal of Medicine and featured on the July 26 editions of both the NBC and CBS evening news. The CBS report quoted one nurse summing it up this way: “He’s just a cat, he’s miserable half the time…wants his treats and then be left alone. But then when he feels that there’s something wrong, he steps right up.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: On Monday, July 23, CNN's 7:00 pm ET edition of the Situation Room was preempted by a presidential debate and therefore was not included in this week's sample.