Thanks to nearly non-stop coverage of an historic
inauguration held amid major foreign and domestic crises, the new Obama
administration dominated the news agenda last week, overwhelming every other
Coverage of Obama’s transformation from President-elect to
President filled 45% of the time on TV and radio and space in print and online the
week of Jan. 19-25, as measured by the News Coverage Index from the Pew Research
Center’s Project for Excellence
in Journalism. This made it the biggest weekly story since the voters went to
the polls on Nov. 4.
Last week’s news landscape also interrupted a recent pattern
of more diverse and diffuse coverage. In the weeks following the election, the
media’s attention had been fairly evenly divided among a number of top
stories—including the Obama transition, the financial crisis, the Rod
Blagojevich scandal and the fighting in Gaza.
By contrast, Obama’s ascendance to the Oval Office last week
generated three times as much coverage as the No. 2 story—the continuing, if
not worsening, economic meltdown, which filled 15% of the newshole. The only
other story to generate any really substantial coverage was about U.S. efforts to
combat terror, at 8% of the newshole. And it’s worth noting that the new
President was a significant factor in both the economic story, by virtue of his
pushing for a stimulus package, and in the terrorism story, fueled to a large
degree by his decision to eventually close the Guantanamo facility.
In another indication of how fully the new President overwhelmed
the news, Obama was a lead newsmaker—a
designation for someone featured in at least 50% of a story—in almost one-third
of all the stories analyzed by the PEJ last week.
While it’s unrealistic to expect Obama to continue to
generate that level of attention, the degree of public and media interest combined
with the daunting challenges facing the new President suggest he will be the
main driver of the news narrative in the foreseeable future.
Transition Watch/The New
By far, the leading storyline in the coverage of the Obama
administration last week, filling about half of that newshole studied, was the
pomp and circumstance of the inauguration itself. But that was a multi-layered
narrative that involved everything from the logistics of handling two million
live spectators to the extensive analysis of his inaugural address.
Nearly every conceivable angle seemed to generate attention.
On inauguration day, the Wall Street Journal found a creative way of reporting
the logistics story by profiling Emmett Beliveau, the 32-year old executive
director of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, who was responsible for “overseeing
the 5,000 portable toilets plus 20 Jumbotron television screens, hundreds of
shuttle buses, thousands of VIPs, the distribution of event tickets by armored
truck, and what the Obama staff calls ‘chum’—trinkets being peddled to the
masses.” Beliveau’s many duties covered everything from the performance of Challenger
the bald eagle at the Lincoln Memorial concert to procuring tickets for
Leonardo DiCaprio, who was jetting in last minute from London.
Once Obama took the oath of office, much of the coverage was
devoted to painstaking analysis of his speech. That media commentary focused
most notably on two aspects—a repudiation of the policies of George Bush
(who happened to be sitting only feet away) and a serious tone largely bereft
of crowd-thrilling rhetorical flourishes.
“The heart of Obama’s first address to the nation as its
president was a rejection of the policies and values of his immediate
predecessors and a somber call for the return of what he called the traditional
American values of hard work, fair play, tolerance and sacrifice for the common
good,” is how the Jan. 21 Los Angeles Times put it. “If the speech was
exceptionally somber and included relatively few lines designed to draw roars
of approval from the enormous crowd, the day nonetheless resounded with
The press was also quick to seize on any potential gaffes. One
such unexpected wrinkle to get sizable attention was the botched oath of office
administered by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, followed by a quiet do-over
the next day in the White House.
“How about this presidential mulligan, if you will?” joked
ABC’s Robin Roberts on the Jan. 22 edition of Good Morning America. “Millions
watched him take the oath of office the first time and then what? There were
like nine [people] last night.”
If the inauguration was top storyline, the second-biggest
component of coverage of the new President focused on his first few days, which
were marked by a wave of announcements and decisions designed to create a sense
of momentum with the public and media.
“In a first-day flurry of
activity, President Barack Obama set up shop in
the Oval Office, summoned advisers to begin
dealing with war and recession and ordered new ethics rules,” reported the AP
story posted Jan. 21 on Yahoo!News. “He also froze salaries for top White House
staff members, placed phone calls to Mideast leaders and had aides circulate a draft executive order that would close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay
within a year.”
Perhaps because Obama had been far more vocal about economic
policy than foreign policy during the transition period—falling back on his
“one President at a time” line—there seemed to be heightened press interest in
his post-inaugural moves on the diplomatic front.
“President Barack Obama named special envoys on
Thursday for the long-troubled Middle East and the violent Afghanistan-Pakistan
region and promised U.S. help in ensuring a lasting truce in Gaza,” noted a
Jan. 22 Reuters report on his selection of
former Senator George Mitchell and ex-UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as
U.S. trouble shooters in two of the world’s hottest flashpoints.
In the media,
that was widely interpreted as a return to the efficacy of diplomacy. Interpreting
the messages in the first hours of the Obama administration, MSNBC commentator
Pat Buchanan declared on Jan. 21 that, “This is a repudiation of
neo-conservatism and the Bush Cheney policy, quite frankly…He’s saying we’re
moving in a different direction.”
such as Buchanan’s, that made assessments and predictions about the new
President’s priorities filled another chunk—roughly one-tenth—of the coverage
last week. Presidential-centric punditry may well grow louder in the coming
weeks, most notably in the cable and talk radio media echo chambers.
The Economic Crisis
A distant second in the coverage, the financial crisis
filled 15% of the newshole in the week of Jan. 19-25. That is a level fairly
consistent with recent weeks. Last week, roughly one-third of the meltdown
narrative was about the proposed stimulus package that Obama is trying to get
passed, the politics and elements of the plan.
In his story on the new President’s meeting with
Congressional leaders for the Jan. 23 ABC newscast, correspondent Jake Tapper
reported that “in that hour-long meeting, President Obama told the group that
if this doesn’t pass, we may lose our jobs. But none of that’s gonna matter
because the economy will be in a major crisis and the American people will be
truly hurting.” The theme of the story was Obama’s growing pressure on
legislators to pass the plan, a dynamic tempered by some Republican objections
aired in the piece.
A very different angle to the economic meltdown story last
week involved former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain’s departure from the Bank of America
“after reports he rushed out billions of dollars in bonuses to Merrill Lynch
employees in his final days as CEO there, while the brokerage was suffering
huge losses and just before Bank of America took it over,” according to an AP
Thain became an even bigger symbol of outrageous
extravagance when financial cable channel CNBC reported he spent more than $1
million to refurbish his Merrill Lynch office suite—including $87,784 on a rug,
$68,179 on a credenza and $25,713 on a pedestal table.
Many on Wall Street, including Thain, have fallen off their pedestals
since Lehman Bros. went belly up in September.
Obama easily lapped the field last week, showing up in as a
lead newsmaker in 30% of the stories examined. What’s more surprising is the
No. 2 newsmaker, even though she accounted for only about one-tenth as much
coverage as Obama. Caroline Kennedy’s mysterious decision to withdraw her name
from consideration to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat triggered a moderate media
frenzy, particularly among the New
York tabloids, with rumors, speculation and leaks
running rampant. It might have been even bigger, and the guessing even more
wild, had it come another week. The No. 3 newsmaker was the little-known
upstate New York Congresswoman who was actually selected to succeed Clinton,
She was followed by outgoing President George Bush at No. 4,
who disappeared remarkably quickly. He was a lead newsmaker in only 2% of the
Next came newly minted Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton—who arrived on the job on Jan. 22 to a rousing welcome from hundreds of
cheering employees in Foggy Bottom.
The Rest of the Week’s News
After the new administration and the financial crisis, the third-biggest
story from Jan. 19-25—at 8% of the newshole—was U.S.
policy on terrorism, a narrative dominated by Obama’s decision to eventually
close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. That was followed by coverage
of the new Congress (5%), where the big news was that Kirsten Gillibrand, not
Caroline Kennedy, would be New York’s
new junior Senator. The No. 5 story (4%) was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most
notably, the cease-fire that brought at least a temporary end to the Gaza bloodshed. With the
violence easing, coverage was down markedly from a conflict that filled 21% and
17% of the newshole in the first weeks of fighting.
The bottom half of last week’s
top-10 story roster included coverage of George Bush’s last days in office (2%)
followed by stories that focused on the racial and global impact of Obama’s
Nov. 4 victory (also at 2%). The National Football league playoffs, in the run-up
to the Super Bowl, was No. 8, at 1% of the newshole. Next was coverage of the
Jan. 19 Martin Luther King holiday (1%) and at No. 10, coverage of the
situation inside Iraq,
(1%) with an emphasis on the upcoming provincial elections.
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.
to the Index for 2009
Each year, PEJ examines the methodology of the Weekly News
Index to ensure that both the content studied and the weights applied to each
media sector reflect developments in how Americans consume news information.
For 2009, PEJ made two adjustments, which went into effect on January 1, 2009.
First, we updated the weighting system used to combine the calculations between
the different media sectors. In recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research
Center for the People
& the Press the number of people who say they get their news online has
increased. Consequently the weight given to online news stories has increased.
Second, we increased from 5 to 12 the number of different Web sites included in
our weekly coding. For detailed information on our weighting system or list of outlets,
see our methodology page.
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ