The U.S. media began a challenging and dramatic week mobilized to cover growing radiation
fears in Japan. They ended it reporting on U.S. military intervention in
Libya’s civil war.
For the week of March 14-20, the still unfolding drama at
a Japanese nuclear facility and continuing coverage of the humanitarian
catastrophe there accounted for 57% of the newshole, according to the Pew
Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That makes it the third-biggest
story in a single week since PEJ began tracking news coverage in 2007.
Things changed dramatically, however, on Thursday, March
17 when the United Nations voted to enact a no-fly zone in Libyan air space to
be enforced by the U.S. and its allies. At that point, the priorities of the
mainstream media shifted abruptly.
From Monday through Thursday, the situation in Japan accounted
for nearly-two thirds of the overall coverage (64%) while the Mideast accounted
for only 10%. But on Friday, the Libyan crisis generated more attention than
Japan and remained atop the headlines throughout the weekend.
The military action in Libya—combined with a small amount
of attention to Bahrain, Egypt and other troubled countries in the region—was
the No. 2 story, accounting for 17% of the newshole and relegating Japan to
secondary status by the end of the week.
With these two top events combining for 74% of the coverage
studied, overseas stories have now led the news agenda for seven out of the
past eight weeks. Indeed, from January 24 (when the protests heated up in
Egypt) until March 20, foreign news has accounted for more than 40% of the
overall U.S. media newshole, about twice the usual level of attention.
The extensive focus on events in Libya and Japan left
little room for other stories. Well back at No. 3 (5%), was the U.S. economy.
The newsmakers there included a Wisconsin judge blocking the recently passed bill
that would limit collective bargaining rights for public employees and the House
of Representatives voting to defund NPR, which has turned into something of a
At No. 4 (2%) was the 2012 presidential election. No
single theme emerged in the coverage, although some pundits did make arguments
that two of the country’s best-known politicians—the president and former vice-presidential
nominee Sarah Palin—would face some significant electoral obstacles.
The U.S. education system was the fifth-biggest story (2%)
as several news reports highlighted the impending 10-year anniversary of the No
Child Left Behind Act, which President Obama said he wants rewritten before the
next school year.
Nuclear Fears in Japan
A story that seemed almost like an afterthought by Sunday
was anything but that for most of the week.
The aftermath of the Japanese earthquake was the top
story in every media sector studied by PEJ, but network TV led the way,
devoting 82% of the airtime studied to the story last week. Closely behind was
cable news, at 73%.
And almost three-quarters of last week’s overall
earthquake coverage focused on nuclear concerns stemming from the damaged
“Japan and the world trying to deal with two overlapping
crises right now, the humanitarian disaster and then the urgent effort to
control an unprecedented nuclear emergency,” said ABC’s Good Morning America
anchor George Stephanopoulos on Monday, March 14, following a second explosion
and a third partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan.
While the disaster offered plenty of powerful visuals
that aided the extensive television coverage, news organizations made contributions by providing
explanations of the ramifications of the damage to nuclear facilities.
When Tokyo Electric said radioactivity levels were higher
at the plant than normal, the Washington Post parsed the technical aspects of
what that meant: “Radiation
at the plant’s premises rose over the benchmark limit of 500 microsievert per
hour at two locations, measuring 751 microsievert at the first location at 2:20
a.m. and 650 at the second at 2:40 a.m., according to information Tokyo
Electric gave the government. The hourly amounts are more than half the 1,000
microsievert to which people are usually exposed in one year.”
The storyline grew increasingly ominous as a deluge of
sea water failed to cool the reactor cores at the Fukushima plant. On March 15,
the Wall Street Journal reported that “Japan’s nuclear crisis showed signs of
spinning out of control.”
That night, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams posed
the question of how much worse the situation could get to Professor Frank von
Hippel, a widely interviewed Princeton expert on nuclear energy. “It could
potentially approach a Chernobyl-type situation,” said Hippel.
On Wednesday March 16, the news seemed to get even worse.
“Adding to the alarm tonight [are] statements from top
Obama administration officials that they too are getting mixed signals and
conflicting information from Japan. And those new U.S. assessments that the
crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi complex is more grave, U.S. officials say, than
the Japanese people are being told,” said John King in his CNN prime-time
program that evening.
By Thursday March 17, however, there were some reports
that weren’t as grim.
That day, a Voice of America story on Google News, called
the situation “serious but stable…The U.N. nuclear agency says the situation at
Japan’s earthquake and tsunami-crippled nuclear reactor is ‘very serious’ but
there has been ‘no significant worsening’ in the past 24 hours.”
It was at this point in the week that stories began to
take a more U.S.-centric approach, looking at the disaster’s impact on the U.S.
domestic nuclear industry, as well as fears in U.S. of radiation poisoning in
Those fears—which spiked briefly amid news reports of
west coast residents making a run on potassium iodide pills to protect against
radiation—were quickly debunked in much of the media. As Gregory Jaczko,
chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an NPR story from March
18: “Basic physics suggest little risk to anyone in the United States.”
A New War
While the media were riveted to the disaster in Japan
early in the week, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were pushing their way eastward early
in the week, advancing on rebel strongholds en route to Benghazi.
But the volatile situation in Libya captured the world’s—and
the media’s—attention on Thursday when the United Nations Security Council
voted to authorize military action against Gaddafi.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
gave speeches on March 18, he from Brasilia, she from Paris. As the networks waited for Obama’s remarks, there was a sense
that the U.S. military was about to get involved.
“As you know, the president of the United States, the
Secretary of State, they’ve been saying for days now that Gaddafi must go,”
said Wolf Blitzer on CNN. “Well, he hasn’t gone, he’s only intensified his
offensive against the rebels, against the opposition. So it’s going to have to
be a lot more than just a U.N. Security Council resolution, and more tough
talk, that’s not going to be enough.”
In that early coverage, some outlets noted that even
though the U.S. was about to enter a war, the president was not eager to create
the appearance that the country was taking the lead in this effort.
ABC’s Jake Tapper said on March 18 that “President Obama
has done everything he can to internationalize this conflict in making sure
that the Arab League is involved as well. He does not want to be seen as the
United States once again attacking and invading a Muslim country. He wants us
to be seen as the world vs. Gaddafi.”
A March 20 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times
asserted that Obama was going to war quietly. “This is not the way American
presidents go to war. The opening act is supposed to feature the president
sitting solemnly in the Oval Office, explaining the reasons, laying out the
goals, talking tough. Barack Obama did not even announce the start to the third
U.S. war in the Muslim world in a decade,”—leaving that for Secretary Clinton,
who did so in Paris.
Cable news analysts had different takes on the
authorization for military action, but few seemed brightly optimistic
On the Fox News Channel, national security analyst KT
McFarland said: “The Devil’s in the
details… “Who’s going to be part of this military engagement? What are they
going to do? What’s the objective here? When are they going to start fighting?
Is the goal regime change?”
On MSNBC on March 18, retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs was
more blatantly pessimistic. “In the end, our waiting until now—until a time
when there’s almost nobody left of the rebels to fight—means that Gaddafi has
won. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what we do or what Gaddafi does.”
By Sunday morning, the story had moved from talk to
action. New York Times readers were greeted with an image of a Tomahawk missile
being launched from a Navy destroyer, under the headline “Allies Open Air
Assault on Qaddafi’s Forces.”
Newsmakers of the
From March 14-20, Barack Obama was the subject of more
media attention than any other newsmaker, featured prominently in 4% of all
stories studied, a slight drop from 5% the week before. (To be a prominent
newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)
Second to Obama was Libya’s Gaddafi, registering
prominently in 2% of all stories. That is down slightly from 3% the previous
week, but Libya did not really get back on the media front burner until late
last week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ranked as the No. 3 newsmaker
last week, also at 2%, drawing attention for her public statements on Libya as
well her announcement that she would not serve a second term in her post.
The No. 4 newsmaker of the week, a former Special Forces
soldier working for the CIA named Raymond Davis, was released from a Pakistan
jail after being acquitted of two murder charges. He was featured heavily in 1%
of stories. Finally, at No. 5, was General David Petraeus, (less than 1% of the
stories) who delivered an assessment of the Afghanistan war to Congress.
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.
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