The news narrative shifted significantly last week as the
stress tests for troubled banks overshadowed a flu outbreak that suddenly seemed
The release of the financial health reports of 19 major
banks helped make the economic crisis the top story from May 4-10, according to
the Pew Research Center’s
Project for Excellence in Journalism. The economy’s health filled 21% of the
newshole studied in PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index during the week. That’s
double the coverage of the previous week and the most attention the financial
meltdown has received in the 55 media outlets included in the NCI in six weeks.
Two related subjects, the President’s plan to crack down on overseas tax havens
and the troubled auto industry, filled about another 8% of the newshole.
Conversely, coverage of the swine flu outbreak—while still the
No. 2 story at 9%—plunged by more than two-thirds last week as evidence suggested
the virus was less severe than previously feared. The previous week, the
potential for a pandemic had overwhelmingly dominated the news agenda,
accounting for 31% of the coverage and crowding most other subjects out of the
With its new name, H1N1 rather than swine flu, the global
health threat had to share attention last week with some overseas national
security threats. The volatile situation in Pakistan, where that nation’s
military battled the Taliban, was the No. 3 story, at 5%. But the conflict in neighboring
Afghanistan accounted for an
additional 3%, while Obama’s May 6 meeting with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan filled another 3%. That
brought coverage of what some in the media and Washington are now calling the “Af-Pak”
crisis—depicted by the administration as one inextricably intertwined
geopolitical challenge—to 11% of the week’s newshole.
Still, it was the fragile state of the economy that re-emerged
as the dominant story last week—with several caveats. The level of press
attention still pales in comparison to earlier in the year. (In the first two months
after Obama’s inauguration, the subject filled 43% of the newshole.) And to
some extent, economic coverage is pegged to specific events and milestones—such
as last week’s release of the bank stress tests. When such signposts emerge,
media interest seems to spike. When there are not such visible measures of
economic health, tracking the state of the economy becomes more difficult for
the media, more of a subterranean slog.
The Economic Crisis: Bank
Report Cards Drive the Narrative
Coverage of the financial meltdown rebounded last week as
Americans learned more about the troubled banks that had been at the heart of
the crisis. Close to half of the May 4-10 economic coverage (40%) focused on
the financial sector, with the stress tests proving to be the major newsmakers.
The administration’s strategy for publicizing the crucial
test results seemed to be a carefully orchestrated set of leaks designed to
minimize any serious outbreak of adverse reaction to the news that 10 of the 19
major banks needed more money. And the media narrative picked up on that
strategic rollout theme.
“The results of the bank stress tests have been trickling
out for days, from Washington and from Wall Street, and the leaks seem to
confirm what many bankers feel in their bones: despite all those bailouts, some
of the nation’s largest banks still need more money,” said the front-page story
in the May 7 New York Times.
“The drip drip of news about which big banks are strong and which are weak
finally ended today,’ declared ABC correspondent Betsy Stark on that network’s
The general tone of coverage of these results was, if not cheerful,
certainly not gloomy.
“The results so far seem to suggest that the 19 institutions that underwent
these exams will need less than $100 billion in additional equity to cope with
a deep recession, far less than some investors had feared,” the Times story
In her ABC report revealing that the banks needed an additional $75 billion
in capital, Stark noted the White House view that making the results public
would alleviate some fears about the banks that had proven to be “a serious
drag on the economy.”
“With these stress test results today, the administration believes it has
taken a decisive step toward restoring public confidence and putting the banks
on more solid footing,” she said.
Recently, the news about the economy has been noticeably less grim and more
mixed, with evidence of that again last week. In a segment on the March 5
edition of PBS’s NewsHour, two analysts cited several reasons for at least
Discussing the rebound in stock prices, investment analyst Hugh Johnson
said, “A lot of indicators that tend to tell us where the economy is going are
starting to improve.”
Greg Ip of the Economist magazine asserted that, “the housing market, where
all this trouble began, is actually showing signs…of creeping upwards a little
bit…Consumer spending actually rose in the first quarter.”
Ip also cautioned that better economic news should be seen in the broader
context of a major recession. “It felt really terrible,” he said. “It’s just
not quite as terrible as it was.”
The moderating of that once terrible
economic storyline may be one reason why coverage of the financial crisis has
generally decreased in recent weeks. Another possibility is that there are
fewer big newsmaking events—such as the stimulus bill, the TARP package and the
budget proposal—fueling coverage these days. But last week, at least, the
stress test results proved to be one of those handy media news hooks—and
coverage moved to its highest level since late March.
Swine Flu, Pakistan
Assessing the Threats
One measure of the decreasing urgency of the swine flu story
last week was the big drop-off in television coverage. On cable news, with its
tendency to focus on the most dramatic events of the day, May 4-10 coverage
fell to 3% after filling 34% of the time studied the previous week. On broadcast
network news, the media sector that PEJ’s analysis finds generally pays the
most attention to health stories, attention plunged to 10% from 43% the week
With Mexico re-opening its public places and U.S. schools
advised that it was not necessary to close when swine flu cases are found, the
quantity of coverage was down last week and the tone was less alarmist and
“The U.S. government is cautiously optimistic that the H1N1
influenza virus is more mild than was first thought, new Health Secretary
Kathleen Sebelius said on Tuesday,” read the May 5 Reuters story posted on
Google News. And while media accounts continued to track the virus’ spread
around the globe and many reports cautioned that it could still emerge in a
more virulent form, press interest waned substantially last week.
On the other hand, coverage of the deteriorating security
situation inside Pakistan
increased five-fold last week (from 1% the previous week) as government troops
launched a major attack on Taliban forces in the Swat Valley.
And the growing violence and instability inside the nuclear-armed nation became
a significant storyline.
A May 6 story on NPR’s Morning Edition stated that Pakistan now “looks to be the more urgent
problem for the United States”
than Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are
The report featured special envoy Richard Holbrooke’s
statement to Congress that “our goal must be unambiguously to support and help
stabilize a democratic Pakistan.”
To which New York Congressman Gary Ackerman responded: “Let me be blunt.
Pakistan’s pants are on fire [and] Pakistan’s leaders…seem convinced that if
left alone, or attacked piecemeal, the Islamicist flame will simply burn itself
out. That hope is, at best, folly.”
Coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan,
forces are directly confronting the Taliban, was the sixth-biggest story of the
week, driven largely by reports that a large number of civilians had been
killed in American air strikes. And Obama’s mid-week meeting—in which he
reportedly urged Afghani President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leader Asif
Zardari to wage a more aggressive campaign against militants—was the No. 7
All told, combined coverage of events related to the
fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan would
have made it the No. 2 last week behind only the economy. And that represents
almost a quadrupling of the coverage (3%) the two countries generated in the
first four months of the 2009.
Barack Obama was easily the top newsmaker last week,
featured in 8% of the stories from May 4-10.
But that represents his lowest level of weekly coverage since he was
inaugurated in late January.
And in a week when no one else registered in more than a
small fraction of the stories, most of the top newsmakers made headlines for alleged
crimes and wrongdoing. No. 2, at 2%, was Drew Peterson, the ex-police officer
charged with murdering his third wife. The No. 3 newsmaker, at 1%, was Stephen
Morgan, the man suspected of killing a Wesleyan University
co-ed in what may have been a crime with anti-Semitic overtones.
Generating almost as much coverage as Morgan was the star
player who ran afoul of baseball’s drug policy. Dodger slugger Manny Ramirez
was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a banned female fertility
drug, a substance that some reports suggested could have links to steroid use.
The other top newsmaker, party switching Pennsylvania
Senator Arlen Specter (No. 4 at 1%), could be considered either a villain or a
hero depending on one’s political perspective.
About the NCI
PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 55
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 1,300 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 or institutions who account
for at least 50% of a given story.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ