weeks after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the Gulf disaster generated
its highest level of coverage since the story broke, completely dominating the
the drama of devastation, containment and finger-pointing continued to unfold, the
mainstream media devoted 38% of its newshole to the spill during the week of
May 24-30, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in
Journalism. This marks the sixth week in a row the disaster has made the roster
of top stories. And last week’s coverage easily exceeded the previous high
water mark (20%) during the week of May 3-9.
it represents the most attention to any subject since the week of March 22-28,
when Congress passed the health care bill and that story filled 45% of the
Last week the term “top kill” entered the
lexicon, as BP tried again—unsuccessfully—to stop the flow of oil from the
undersea well. It was also the week when the Obama administration took formal
responsibility for mistakes along the way. But even with the president’s press
conference as a significant newsmaker, the biggest chunk of the coverage still
focused on the growing dimensions of the spill and the sputtering effort to
stop the flow of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
other story came close to matching the spill coverage. The No. 2 story was the
2010 mid-term elections (10%) with much of the attention focused on revelations
about White House efforts to get Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Joe
Sestak to back off of a challenge to incumbent Arlen Specter. (Sestak defeated
Specter in the May 18 Democratic primary.)
No. 3 story was the economy, as global jitters revolving around fragile
European markets impacted stock values at home. It generated 6% of the week’s
was followed closely by the No. 4 story, the ongoing debate about immigration
reform. That subject, at 5% of the week’s coverage, was driven by President
Obama’s decision to send an additional 1,200 troops to the U.S. border with
at No. 5 for the week (3%) was the continuing fallout from South Korea’s
announcement that North Korea had sunk one of its warships, which triggered new
tension in the volatile region.
Coverage of the Spill Spikes
biggest oil spill in U.S. history was again the top story in the news last
week. At 38% of all coverage, the spill generated about twice the amount of
media attention as the previous week (18%).
spill saga is also notable for its continuing hold on the media’s sometimes short
attention span. The amount of new information, the ups and downs of the
unfolding narrative, may partially explain the story’s staying power.
week, BP announced it would attempt to mount a “top kill” operation, one of
several highly technical procedures designed to stanch the flow. That
procedure, by the end of the week, had failed to produce any lasting effect.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration, facing criticism for its handling of the
situation, took steps to show it was in charge. The president issued a frank
apology for missteps during a May 27 press conference. The next day, he visited
last week, the media continued to focus mostly on unfolding events such as the
impact on the environment and the economy, as well as the containment and
cleanup of the oil. About half the coverage went to these matters, while about
one-third dwelt on the government’s role in managing the crisis and about
one-sixth focused on BP’s culpability.
week not all media sectors conveyed the same level of interest as the spill
proved to be, first and foremost, a TV story.
news, which often devotes major coverage to disasters with a strong visual
component, focused more attention to the spill than print, online or radio
sectors. The broadcast networks devoted fully half—50%—of the airtime studied to
the spill last week as viewers were again confronted with the sobering ecological
impact of the millions of gallons of spilled crude.
May 24 CBS Evening News broadcast showed anchor Katie Couric in Grand Isle,
Louisiana, discussing the scope of the
damage over images of coated wildlife and polluted coastline. Though Couric
rattled off a series of statistics, some uncertainty remained about the true
scope of the devastation to date.
one knows how much oil has leaked into the Gulf over the past thirty-five days,”
she said. “The most conservative estimate is six million gallons. But some
scientists believe the spill has already surpassed the eleven million gallons
that leaked from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.”
And on ABC’s Good Morning America, Democratic
pundit and Louisiana resident James Carville called for stronger White House
involvement, declaring that “…these people are crying, they’re begging for
something down here. And, it just looks like he’s not involved in this.”
The cable channels devoted even more of their coverage (57% of the airtime
studied) to the story, often homing in on the question of who is to blame.
the May 24 edition of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, the liberal host
delivered a scathing report, assigning guilt to the Obama administration and
especially to BP for the catastrophe.
is not yet capping its oil spill nor its release of toxic oil dispersants, even
after the government ordered it to. And the government is not capping, as it
promised, flow of new permits for new drilling … No one seems capable of doing
one damned thing.”
cable hosts talked about the spill too—though not as much as their liberal
counterparts. On May 26, Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity portrayed the president
as a detached leader in a time of crisis, narrating over video of Obama getting
“The president wasn’t about to let the biggest
environmental disaster in American history keep him off the golf course,”
Hannity said. “Now, he hit the links at least twice in the last two weeks
alone. And in between golf outings White House pool reports indicate that the
president has been working on his basketball game.”
no cable outlet spent more time on the story than CNN. It devoted the vast
majority of its news coverage studied last week to the subject. MSNBC was next,
devoting roughly two-thirds of its air time to the subject. Fox News gave the
spill considerably less attention—only about a quarter of its air time.
other sectors of the media did not devote as much coverage to the spill as
television, the story was still No. 1 in newspapers (26%), online (26%), and on
the radio (32%).
The Rest of the Week’s
2010 midterm congressional elections followed the Gulf story in a distant No. 2 position, accounting
for 10% of the newshole last week. Much of that coverage focused on claims made
by Democrat Joe Sestak, winner in the recent Pennsylvania primary against
incumbent Arlen Specter, that the White House had offered him a job in exchange
for bowing out of the race.
A story published on USAToday.com on May 28 summarized new information about
the deal, based on a disclosure by White House Counsel Robert Bauer that Sestak
had been offered an unpaid position on an advisory board if he would bow out of
the race: “The key question: Was the offer legal? Was
it ethical? Was it in keeping with the open, transparent government Obama has
pledged to run? Bauer’s answers: yes, yes and yes.”
Across the aisle, some Republicans
called for an investigation into the episode.
again, foreign economic concerns became domestic worries, as the slumping stock
market was the biggest theme in the week’s economic news coverage. Media
attention to the lingering economic tremors made it the No. 3 story, at 6% of
the week’s news.
national debate about immigration policy was among the top stories last week. The
media devoted 5% of the week’s newshole to that topic, much of it focused on
the Obama administration’s decision on May 25 to send 1,200 troops to the
No. 5 story involved the new fissure in relations between North and South
Korea. Though the story had international diplomatic and security ramifications
and involved the U.S.—which has nearly 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea—coverage
faded quickly as other concerns crowded the media’s agenda. It occupied 3% of
Newsmakers of the Week
figures dominated the news during the week of May 24-30, along with one
erstwhile member of the British royalty.
the ranks of the week’s newsmakers was President Obama, who was a lead
newsmaker in 11% of all stories. (To be a lead newsmaker, a figure must appear
in at least half of a story.) That marks a significant increase over the
previous week’s total (5%) as the media closely analyzed the administration’s
response to the crisis in the Gulf.
No. 2 newsmaker (4%) of the week was Joe Sestak, a central figure in the saga
of the White House’s role in trying to pre-empt his challenge to Specter.
of State Hillary Clinton found herself at the center of a challenging diplomatic
situation—and among the top newsmakers—when relations between North and South
Korea took a precarious turn. The chief diplomat’s visit to China was eclipsed by
coverage of her statements about North Korea. Clinton was a lead newsmaker in 1%
of all stories last week, making her the No. 3 newsmaker.
Tied as lead newsmakers in the same number of stories last week, at 1%, were Gary Coleman, Sarah Ferguson and Billy Nungesser.
Coleman was the one-time child actor who died of a brain hemorrhage on May 28. He was famous for his role as Arnold in the 1980s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes.”
Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson made some unwelcome and embarrassing news when she was caught by News of the World in an undercover sting. The former member of British royalty, once married to Prince Andrew, was caught trying to sell access to the prince for £500,000.
Finally, Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, made the news for his vocal advocacy on behalf of the Gulf region, now threatened by oil residue.
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 1,100 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.
Jesse Holcomb of PEJ