Disaster, Economic Anxiety, but Little Interest in War
Two weeks into the year, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti and dominated the news in the United States for a month. As coverage began to subside, the climactic legislative battle over remaking the American health care system took on a feverish quality—and began its own month-long control of the news. In April, an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico commandeered the media’s attention all the way into August. And from Labor Day to Nov. 2, the midterm elections held the media’s fascination far beyond anything else.
But throughout the year, one story remained a constant—the narrative morphing and evolving to be sure, but usually conveying the same underlying message of apprehension: The No. 1 story of the year was the weakened state of the U.S. economy.
By year’s end, the economy registered among the top four stories every week studied by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in its weekly News Coverage Index. And the attention given the story was remarkably consistent. Economic news accounted for between 13% and 17% of the overall coverage studied in every quarter of 2010.
Yet, it was often overshadowed by bigger breaking news events. Although it was the first or second story 39 weeks out of 50, the economy filled more than 30% of the news studied only once. Health care, the election and the oil spill together passed that threshold nine times.
For its part, the public paid keen attention to the nervous economic news. The news media’s No. 1 story of the year consistently generated high levels of attention among news consumers, even as the major breaking stories of 2010 garnered more public interest for many weeks this year.
But surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press also found divergence between the media’s and public’s news priorities. (A fuller report on the findings of the News Interest Index is here.)
In the case of several major events—the Haiti earthquake, health care reform legislation, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill—news consumers maintained high levels of interest even after press attention had diminished. And at the other end of the spectrum, the public displayed considerably less interest than the media in several “inside the Beltway” stories, especially the comments that led to the dismissal of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
New media, meanwhile, had a varied news agenda. The blogosphere generally mirrored the mainstream media, according to PEJ’s research, while Twitter users were far more interested in technology and international affairs.
These are among the findings of a review of three different research efforts by the Pew Research Center. The weekly News Coverage Index by the Project for Excellence in Journalism measures the news the public was exposed to from the mainstream media. PEJ’s New Media Index tracks the conversation in blogs, the top news videos on YouTube and the discussion of news on Twitter. And the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ weekly New Interest Index survey measures the public reaction to that news coverage.
These complementary measures offer a unique look at the public conversation in the United States by tracking, in effect, the media stimulus and the public response to the news.
PEJ’s News Coverage Index monitors news in 52 different mainstream media outlets from print, online, cable, network broadcast and radio. The New Media Index monitors commentary on millions of news-focused blogs as identified by the web tracking site Icerocket, and the leading news topics on Twitter as identified by the web tracking site Tweetmeme.
Among the findings:
- Although the economy was the leading subject of the year, no one dimension of the story dominated the media narrative. In the first few months of 2010, it was the fate of the battered financial sector that generated attention. In the third quarter, the big news was about the employment picture. And in the final three months of the year, negotiations over the Bush-era tax cuts took center stage.
- While the media and public were in sync on the economy, the press showed considerably more interest than the public in a number of Washington-centric stories, such as the forced resignations of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Agriculture Department staffer Shirley Sherrod, as well as the 2010 elections.
- When it came to the nation’s two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, the press and the public mutually displayed only modest interest. Coverage of the Afghanistan war dropped to just 4% of all the news studied in 2010, (down from 5% in 2009) as the nine-year-old conflict often struggled for attention in the mainstream media. The big change in last year’s narrative was the diminished attention to U.S. policy debates over the war. Coverage of the Iraq war, meanwhile, dropped to 1% of the newshole studied from 2% in 2009.
- An examination of the top stories in social and online media in 2010 found dramatic differences between what bloggers and Twitter users talked about last year. The top story in the blogosphere was the economy (10%), same as in the mainstream media (14%). But the leading news topic on Twitter was computer giant Apple (13%).
- The tea party phenomenon was a key narrative of the 2010 midterms. During the last two months of the campaign, the tea party accounted for twice the campaign coverage (13%) as the impact of the economy and health care on the election combined. Much of the fascination was with the most controversial candidates. For instance, tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell, who was soundly defeated, generated more election coverage between Labor Day and Election Day than anyone other than President Obama.
- Due largely to the Gulf oil spill and the Haiti earthquake—as well as mine explosions in West Virginia and Chile—coverage of disasters in 2010 spiked dramatically, up to 8% of the overall newshole from only 2% the year before. The long-running oil spill story in particular defied the traditional “one-week wonder” pattern for disasters, in which the media initially flood the zone with coverage, but quickly lose interest.
- In the heated cable news wars, CNN is often viewed as the odd man out in the ideological battles waged by MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. But 2010 also proved that CNN was the cable outlier when it came to news agenda. For instance, it devoted considerably more coverage to the oil spill (12%) and Haiti (5%) and less to the election (11%) than either of its two rivals.