A volley of primaries put the mid-term elections in the
media foreground last week. At the same time, two sobering assessments—one of
post-Katrina New Orleans and the other of the nation’s economy—followed close
behind in a week where no story clearly dominated the news. And the controversy
surrounding the New York Islamic center and a massive egg recall were also among
the top stories.
Primary elections in five states—with at least one
surprise outcome—made politics and the mid-term elections the No. 1 story for
the week of August 23-29, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for
Excellence in Journalism. At 14% of the newshole, it was the second time in three
weeks that the mid-terms were the top story in PEJ’s weekly News Coverage
Index, which analyzes the media agenda of the mainstream press. Much of the
debate centered on the advantages of insider versus outsider candidates, but by
the week’s end, pundits were left with a challenge to the conventional wisdom.
Last week was also the five-year anniversary of the
arrival of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, and many media outlets sent
personnel to New Orleans to assess the progress of the region’s recovery. The
story was No. 2 for the week, accounting for 11% of the newshole studied.
The third-biggest story of the week was the state of the
U.S. economy. Last week, a series of dismal economic reports seemed to confirm
worries that the recovery had slowed to nearly a halt. Coverage of these, the
reaction of the stock market, and the Federal Reserve chief’s speech signaling
that the Fed was prepared to act to stimulate the economy if necessary, made up
another 9% of the newshole studied.
Coverage of the proposed Islamic Center near the World
Trade Center site in New York, the lead story two weeks ago, dropped to No. 4 (from
15% of the newshole to 6%), but the story did not disappear.
A nationwide recall of more than 500 million eggs due to
fears over salmonella contamination rounded out the top five stories of the
week. The media devoted 4% of the newshole to reporting on the recall, tracing
the implications for public health and the impact on business.
Voters Go to the
While the media generally focused intently on the primaries last week and their
implications for the mid-term elections in November, none were as focused on
the subject as cable and talk radio, sectors that are often given to political
On cable, nearly a quarter of the airtime studied—24%—dealt
with the races, their outcomes and what they foretold. On radio, the number was
smaller, 16%, but when straight-news radio programming is removed, the number
was much higher.
In other media, the story got less attention. On newspaper
front pages, for instance, the story was No. 2, filling 9% of the newshole,
while among the top five stories on the most popular news websites it was also
No. 2, at 13%. On network TV, the story peaked at only No. 5 (8%). The networks
were more heavily focused on the economy and Katrina remembrances.
Much of the week’s election coverage centered around the GOP
primary votes that occurred in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont.
From the outset,
the races were framed almost as a David and Goliath contest: “It’s the political establishment vs.
the outsiders in Tuesday’s primaries,” read an Associated Press article from
August 24, “and the establishment has the better odds.”
Closely watched was the Republican senatorial
primary race in Alaska between a Sarah Palin-backed Tea Party favorite Joe
Miller and his well-known opponent Senator Lisa Murkowski. It was not only
viewed as a test of the Tea Party movement but of its champion Sarah Palin in
particular. “Republican Joe Miller’s upstart primary bid against Ms. Murkowski
looked like a long shot, but it didn’t scare away Ms. Palin,” said the same AP story.
In the end, the primary results were a mix. The Alaska race was deadlocked. An
outsider won in Florida, but analysts noted that looking across all races this
primary season incumbent candidates almost always had won. At least some media,
particularly in the talk world, took from the results what they wanted to see.
Rush Limbaugh, for instance, on August 25 saw Tea Party
triumph and a reason to further attack what he calls the drive-by media: “Sarah
Palin has had at least 11 of the candidates she endorsed go on to win—often
against very long odds—and don’t forget, ‘cause the drive-bys are out there
saying that Palin’s lost her power.”
From the left, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow made a point of not prognosticating based
on the previous day’s results. “We are not going to address the question of
what last night’s results tell us about the influence of the Tea Party
movement. We are not going to weigh whether anti-incumbent is in fact sweeping
the nation… and at least for the moment, we are not going to look at what this
will all mean when the votes are eventually counted 69 nights from now in the
One incumbent victory over a political outsider received
a large portion of the GOP primary coverage, and that was Arizona Senator John
McCain’s win over J.D. Hayworth. McCain outspent his opponent dramatically and
won by a substantial margin. But Limbaugh pointed out, “let’s not forget that
one of the candidates that Palin endorsed was McCain.”
The Rest of the
Five years after Hurricane Katrina touched down in the
Gulf Coast, it was in the news again as media outlets took stock of recovery
and rebuilding efforts. While much of the news was grim, there were occasional
portrayals of a hopeful situation.
Anderson Cooper, one of the anchors who spent the week in
New Orleans, summarized the situation this way on the August 25 CNN prime-time
program: “Crime is still a major problem, yes, and many city-owned properties
are still in ruins, but there is new life here. Local restaurants are
rebounding, tourists are coming, and the schools here are improving. A lot of
people are working very, very hard. Human spirit here is something they’ve
never been short of.”
At No. 3, coverage of the U.S. economy was fueled by
bleak new housing numbers, a weak gross domestic product rate, and a restrained
speech by Fed chief Ben Bernanke.
New York Times’ Peter Goodman assessed the situation in an
August 28 analysis. “Despite an aggressive regimen of treatments from the
conventional to the exotic—more than $800 billion in federal spending, and
trillions of dollars worth of credit from the Federal Reserve—fears of a second
recession are growing, along with worries that the country may face several
more years of lean prospects.” Faced with dwindling policy options, “The
situation has left American fortunes pinned to an uncertain remedy: hoping that
things somehow get better.”
The previous week’s top story—the debate over a proposed
Islamic center a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center—fell to No.
4 story, about a third of the amount one week before. No major developments
appeared as the story diffused. There was little left to report other than the
lingering protests, outcries and pundit reactions.
Finally, at No. 5 (4%), was a massive recall of eggs, due
to salmonella, from two major American farms. A cause of the salmonella, which
triggered the August 13 recall of hundreds of millions of eggs, still has not
Newsmakers of the Week
President Barack Obama remained atop the list of newsmakers last week,
appearing as a main focus of 4% of all stories, but that was down from 10% when
he fueled the Mosque controversy with remarks he made at a White House dinner. (To
be a lead newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)
He was followed by two individuals who were featured in
an equal amount of stories. One was former President Jimmy Carter (2%), who
made the news after he secured the release of an American prisoner from North
The other was Arizona Senator John McCain, also at 2%,
who won handily in his Senate primary race against J.D. Hayworth. McCain was
the No. 1 newsmaker in stories just about the mid-term elections, where he was
featured in 12% of stories.
Pro golfer Tiger Woods was the No. 4 newsmaker of the
week, at 1% of all stories. Woods’ and Elin Nordegren’s divorce papers were
finally signed, after which a People Magazine interview with Nordegren
Also at 1% was Joe Miller, the proclaimed underdog in the
Alaska Republican senate primary race against Lisa Murkowski. The media clung
to the story once it appeared that the election would be too close to call.
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