A series of police crackdowns resulted in the biggest
week of Occupy Wall Street media coverage since the protests began two months
ago. And for the second week in a row, the stunning sexual abuse scandal at
Penn State University registered as the No. 2 story in the nation.
Last week, the U.S. economy was the No. 1 story at 22% of
the newshole, with the majority of that coverage focused on the confrontations
between protesters, law enforcement, and the city governments that preside over
the public spaces that have become encampments. All totaled, the Occupy Wall
Street story accounted for 13% of the overall newshole during the week of
November 14-20, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence
That coverage marked a major spike from the week before
when media attention to the protests had dropped to just 1% of the newshole. It
surpassed even the week of October 10-16, when the protests, largely focused on
income inequality, filled 10% of the newshole as the demonstrations expanded around
the country and partisans began turning it into a major political issue.
News about the demonstrations unfolded dramatically last
week, as Occupy sites in Oakland, Portland and other cities were cleared by law
enforcement, precipitating a spike in arrests and several injuries. And
coverage really took off when New York’s Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the
movement, was cleared of encampments for cleaning on Tuesday, November 15.
The Penn State University sexual abuse scandal maintained
its prominence in the news agenda, filling 15% of the newshole, down modestly
from 17% the previous week. In each of the past two weeks, the Penn State saga has
generated more coverage than any other sports-related scandal since PEJ began
tracking news coverage in January 2007.
While much of the earlier attention fell on the iconic
head football coach Joe Paterno, last week’s coverage revolved around former
assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who is alleged to have sexually abused young
boys over a 15-year period.
Sandusky’s high-profile November 14 television interview
with NBC’s Bob Costas made the embattled coach the No. 1 newsmaker last week,
as he registered as a dominant newsmaker in 9% of the week’s stories. It also helped
make the scandal the No. 1 story on cable (29% of the airtime studied last week)
and network TV (21%). (To be a dominant newsmaker, a figure must appear in at
least 50% of a story).
Coverage of the No. 3 story last week, the 2012
presidential campaign, plunged to 12% of the newshole, half the previous week’s
total of 24%. The media’s interest in sexual misconduct allegations against GOP
candidate Herman Cain largely faded, in part because of another distraction
facing the Cain campaign after the former pizza restaurant CEO fumbled on a
question about what he would do in Libya. Last week, Cain was the No. 3 newsmaker
overall, featuring prominently in 4% of stories.
At No. 4 last week was the Obama administration’s health
care law, which resurfaced in the news when the Supreme Court announced on
November 14 that it would decide on its constitutionality. That subject accounted
for 4% of the newshole last week, the most attention it has received since the
week of January 31-February 6, 2011, when a federal judge in Florida ruled
against the law. (That week, it registered as the No. 3 story, at 7% of the
And further unrest in the Middle East accounted for 4% of
the newshole as the unrest and violence in Syria caused the Arab League to suspend
that country’s membership. The media reported on the fighting that claimed at
least 90 lives there.
Occupy Wall Street
The Occupy Wall Street protests, which had been slowly
fading from the media’s radar screen, generated plenty of headlines last week
when several cities around the country, including New York, took steps to
control the encampments.
On Monday, November 14, law enforcement officials in
Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore., cleared out encampments, resulting in
dozens of arrests. On Tuesday, police in New York cleared out Zuccotti Park,
resulting in dozens more. Much of the media attention throughout the week
focused on New York, but several clashes with police drew attention as well,
including an 84-year-old woman who was pepper sprayed by Seattle police. And a
late-week “national day of action,” marking the two-month anniversary of the
protests, attracted more media interest as well.
The actions by officials around the country prompted the
media to weigh in on the movement, with some of that commentary falling among
predictably partisan lines.
Rev. Al Sharpton, on his new MSNBC program Politics
Nation, spoke over live footage of the national day of action demonstrations on
November 17. “We are now looking at a live picture of thousands of protesters
who are planning to get across the Brooklyn Bridge … We that march, we that
engage in civil disobedience, are not doing it because people like to get arrested,
or people like to be out in the cold. We do it because you must dramatize what
is going on to have those that are ignoring it have to address the problems.”
Others were not so sympathetic. Fox News Channel host
Bill O’Reilly described the lurid side of Occupy Wall Street, including the
discovery of drug paraphernalia and instances of theft and violence. “So, the
Occupy Wall Street movement is dead, finished as a legitimate political force
in this country. And that’s a good thing,” concluded O’Reilly on his November
As for the future of the movement, news outlets explored
that angle too. On November 15, CBS reporter Michelle Miller interviewed one
protester who sounded hopeful on that evening’s newscast. “Was this a
preemptive strike?” asked Miller, in reference to the evacuation of Zuccotti
Park. “I assume so,” said the protester, “but it was really badly calculated
because it’s only going to galvanize us. We’re only going to be stronger
because of this.”
But on that same day, The Huffington Post described a
movement that seemed at least momentarily disoriented. “By 4 a.m., the park was
cleared and hundreds of protesters, uncertain of their next move and blocked by
police barricades, wandered the financial district.”
And a November 15 Washington Post story summarized one of
the chief challenges that the Occupy Wall Street movement faces going forward.
“The movement began as a protest of major economic and political issues, but
lately the most divisive issue has become the protests themselves,” the story
noted. “The Occupy Wall Street encampments that formed across the country to
spotlight crimes committed on Wall Street have become rife with problems of
Penn State Abuse
The Penn State scandal spotlight shone brightly on former
football coach Jerry Sandusky last week after his prime-time NBC interview
raised more questions about the sexual molestation charges against him. The
scandal was the No. 2 story last week at 15% of the newshole, with much of the
focus on Sandusky’s response to questions by Bob Costas about the allegations.
“His words, in his voice, were as hard to listen to as
they were difficult to turn away from. And the interview instantly became
admissible evidence in a future trial,” reported Brian Williams on the November
15 broadcast of Nightly News.
In the interview, conducted for NBC’s new program Rock
Center, Sandusky admitted to showering with the young boys he mentored through
a charity he had founded for troubled youth, but denied any sexual intent on
his part. When asked if he was attracted to young boys, Sandusky repeated the
question aloud, ultimately taking 14 seconds to answer in the negative.
Much of the coverage of the scandal was concentrated
early in the week after Sandusky’s Monday interview. In the first few days of
the week, November 14-16, the story accounted for 21% of the newshole. But in
the latter portion of the week (November 17-20) attention waned, and the story
registered only at 6% of the newshole.
Shortly after the interview came the media assessments.
Many of them analyzed Sandusky’s performance, interpreting his words as further
evidence of guilt. And a few questioned the judgment of Sandusky’s attorney for
allowing his client to speak openly on the air. There were virtually no reports
suggesting Sandusky had improved his image by granting the interview.
The Rest of the
The No. 3 story last week (12%), the presidential
campaign, drew significantly less coverage than it had the week before. In part
this was due to fading media interest in sexual misconduct accusations that had
been leveled by a number of women at Herman Cain, whose rise in the polls had
placed him in the spotlight. Yet Cain still made news thanks to a video showing
him trying in vain to respond to a policy question about Libya during a visit
to a newspaper.
Cain was the chief subject of election news last week, a
significant newsmaker in 37% of all campaign stories studied. (To register as a
significant newsmaker, someone must appear in at least 25% of a story.)
The Obama administration’s signature health care reform
bill was the No. 4 story last week (4%) when the Supreme Court said on November
14 that it would hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the law. In part
because the ruling is likely to come during the summer of 2012, shortly before
the November presidential elections, some of the coverage turned to the
political impact of any decision on the president’s reelection bid.
Much of the attention on the Middle East last week (No. 5
at 4% of the newshole) was on Syria and its embattled president, Bashar
al-Assad. As former Syrian troops joined the anti-government uprising and
violence increased, video footage from the region chronicled the chaotic and
dangerous situation in a country on the brink of civil war.
Newsmakers of the
For the first time in three weeks, someone other than presidential
candidate Herman Cain was the top newsmaker overall—Jerry Sandusky. Last week Sandusky
was a dominant newsmaker in 9% of stories, a week after former Penn State head
coach Joe Paterno, who was fired on November 9, was the key figure in the
The No. 2 newsmaker last week, Barack Obama, has not been
the No. 1 newsmaker since the week of October 24-30. Normally the most-covered
individual by the mainstream media, Obama was featured prominently in 6% of
stories last week.
At No. 3 was Cain, whose prominence in the media overall
was down substantially to 4%, from 12% the week before. Another Republican
presidential hopeful, Newt Gingrich, enjoyed not only a resurgence in the polls
last week but also in media attention. He was the No. 4 newsmaker and the focus
of 4% of stories overall last week.
Finally, at No. 5, was Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, the man
charged with attempting to assassinate President Obama in a shooting incident
the previous week. Ortega-Hernandez was arrested after a several-day search
which ended in western Pennsylvania. He was the focus of 3% of stories last
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