April 30, 2011

Tornadoes Lead News in Days Before Bin Laden Death

PEJ News Coverage Index April 25 - May 1, 2011

The deadly tornadoes that ripped through the Southeast on April 27—reportedly killing more than an estimated 300 people and leaving hundreds more missing—topped the news agenda from April 25-May 1, accounting for 15% of the newshole, according to the PEJ’s News Coverage Index. No domestic natural disaster has generated that level of attention in a single week since September 1-7, 2008 (17%), when Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana, causing mass evacuations. 

Storm coverage was boosted in part by Barack Obama’s April 29 visit to hard-hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama—a trip he took after making the decision in Washington to give the green light to the bin Laden mission. 

Video images of twisters—many provided by amateur videographers—and scenes of devastation received heavy play on television, especially on the broadcast networks, where the storm news accounted for 23% of the airtime studied by PEJ. 

Standing in a flattened part of Tuscaloosa where 16 people were killed, ABC News’ Steve Osunsami described the human toll: “First responders who were here were so busy pulling the living from all of these debris, they were forced to ignore the dead. That’s how bad this is. You can hear the sound of smoke detectors in the distance but no one’s here. There’s the smell of death.” 

At the same time the media were covering the aftermath of the violent storms, they were also preparing to chronicle  the week’s No. 4 story—the highly anticipated British royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which accounted for 11% of the newshole. 

U.S. media outlets sent their top anchors and correspondents to London to report back on the young couple, the guests, and the feelings of British citizens about the lavish event, and of course, the wedding dress. (At least one, however, NBC anchor Brian Williams, left London to cover the tornado story in the U.S.) 

Like the tornadoes, the royal wedding was a major network news television event, with newscasts beginning their live coverage as early as 4 a.m. (Eastern) on Friday, the day of the wedding. On the networks, the wedding accounted for 36% of the week’s coverage.

The U.S. economy was the No. 2 story last week at 12%—down slightly from 14% the week before. The news was driven by reports about Federal Reserve chairman Benjamin Bernanke’s Wednesday press conference in which he took questions from reporters—a first in the history of the Fed. In addition, about a quarter of the economic coverage focused on the federal budget deficit.

About a quarter of the Obama narrative focused on the nominations of Leon Panetta to be the next defense secretary and David Petraeus to head the CIA. But about two-thirds of the Obama coverage was given over to rumors about the president’s place of birth. Following efforts by potential GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump to raise questions about Obama’s citizenship, the president used an April 27 news conference to announce that his long-form birth certificate was now public. Trump responded by publicly taking credit for the “revelation.”

Last week marked the third consecutive week that rumors about Obama’s birthplace generated significant attention in the mainstream media.

Continuing upheaval in the Middle East rounded out the top five stories last week, as a violent crackdown on protestors in Syria and a NATO bombing of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan compound that killed his youngest son accounted for much of the 11% devoted to the turmoil around the region. For the first time, the balance of coverage tipped toward Syria, the focus of more coverage than Libya last week. Overall attention to the Middle East was down from 15% the week before.

Newsmakers of the Week

A major press conference, a visit to Alabama in the wake of disaster and rumors about his birth certificate propelled Barack Obama to the top of the headlines, making him the dominant newsmaker in 10% of all stories during the week of April 25-May 1. That is up slightly from 8% the week before. (To be considered a dominant newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)

Donald Trump, in his second week in a row as the No. 2 newsmaker, featured prominently in 5% of all stories studied. His presidential aspirations were overshadowed by his questions about Obama’s place of birth, and later, by his reaction to the White House’s publicizing of Obama’s birth certificate.

And finally, at No. 5 (2%), was Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was to attend the launch of the space shuttle Endeavor, commanded by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly (the launch, scheduled for April 29, was delayed).  Giffords had not been among the top five newsmakers since the week of February 14-20.

About the NCI

PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 52 different outlets from five sectors of the media: print, online, network TV, cable and radio. (See List of Outlets.) The weekly study, which includes some 1,000 stories, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of that media narrative and differences among news platforms. The percentages are based on "newshole," or the space devoted to each subject in print and online and time on radio and TV. (See Our Methodology.) In addition, these reports also include a rundown of the week’s leading newsmakers, a designation given to people who account for at least 50% of a given story.

Jesse Holcomb of PEJ