Cable TV Content Analysis
2006 Annual Report: A Day in the Life of the News
Cable news thrives on the big, breaking news story. It has gravitated over its quarter-century of audience growth to major crises — wars, disasters, political scandals, big tabloid crime cases. It is the more typical news day, one where events are mostly momentary, alarms prove false, and the news is incremental, that represents cable’s special challenge.
May 11, 2005, was one of those. Much of the news happened overnight and overseas as the nation slept. And the list of new and dramatic breaking news events occurring this day was limited.
There were still things happening — enough to fill the pages of the next day’s newspapers. Yet cable, with its “see it now” approach, would focus this day primarily on just three events.
One was a trial of a celebrity, closed to cameras. Another was a bond hearing in an Illinois double murder, also off camera, where the killer, as planned, would formally confess to killing his child and her friend. The third was a scare, which would last for only 15 minutes, over a small plane’s entering restricted airspace.
A close look at the coverage this day puts some of cable’s tendencies in clear relief.
During much of the cable day, immediacy seems to be the criterion of significance above all others. That sometimes leads to an odd hyperbole in which anchors endeavor to create a sense of urgency about small things. In the hour before noon , the three channels on this day would air more than a dozen shots of an empty press room in Illinois and a doorway in front of the courthouse of the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial, where the former child actor Macaulay Culkin was expected to enter.
Another result of cable’s weakness for the breaking story is the way cable journalists strain to make things seem compelling. Nine hours after the plane incident was over, CNN’s Aaron Brown tried mightily to recreate a sense of panic that people felt when the White House and Capitol were evacuated for a few minutes around lunchtime. “ When it was happening, nothing wasn't nothing,” Brown intoned somberly. “It was very much something…. We didn’t know what it was.” View CNN Video Clip
Some other findings include:
In past years, our content analysis revealed some stark findings about cable news. The medium is largely unscripted — it eschews taped, edited packages in favor of live interviews, and reporters talking off the cuff or from hasty notes. Pictures and words often don’t match. The reporting contains fewer sources and viewpoints than elsewhere on TV. And rather than being up to date, much of the reporting is repetitive. Over two years of study we found that roughly 7 in 10 of the stories on cable repeat, but less than 1 in 10 contains any substantive new information.1
The more detailed Day in the Life study deepened this impression and found other traits. Reporting on cable is highly focused around either the personality of the program hosts or sending a camera and correspondent to an event and having them pass along what they are seeing at that moment. The effect, more so than in other media, is that the audience’s role is passive. There is less effort here to tell how these stories involve the viewers, what to do about them, how they relate to their lives, or how viewers can do or learn more.
Cable’s Lack of Summarization
The viewers’ role is passive except for one area — the extent to which it is up to the viewers to add up for themselves what the pieces on cable offer throughout the day. The diversity of sources and viewpoints on cable news is usually across two or three different stories rather than within one piece. Facts can vary from account to account. Sources in live interviews offer one view, and it may be a while before contrary or supplemental information is forthcoming. A viewer needs to see all the accounts to get any kind of depth of knowledge.
Take, for example, coverage of the D.C. plane scare. One cable story quoted the Capitol police chief. Another offered reactions of those involved in the evacuation. Still a third interviewed an Air Force colonel responsible for air defense in Washington . A fourth interviewed folks who knew the pilots. But those moments were spread across a multitude of stories over several hours and across the channels. To learn about all those different angles, viewers would need to catch most if not all of that coverage.
Yet they could have gotten virtually all of it by going online, where stories contained most of these elements in one piece, and users could access it whenever they wanted.
Why we found this trait in cable is hard to pin down but worth pondering. With so much time to fill, it is possible cable news managers are simply preoccupied with getting things on the air. Or that for the number of hours to fill, the reporters they have to draw on is too limited. The focus on the immediate may exacerbate the problem, making it virtually impossible to prepare. Whatever the causes, for much of the day, cable anchors function more like traffic cops than investigators.
The study also confirmed another earlier finding, that reporters on cable news are more likely to offer their own opinions about events than other media. Over all, 47% of cable stories on May 11 include reportorial opinion, compared with 14% in the media as a whole. (It was 20% on network evening TV and 48% on network morning). And for the biggest story of the day — the plane scare in Washington — that number jumped to 83%.2
Journalist Opinion in D.C. Plane Scare Coverage
Percent of all stories
The opinion on May 11 came in various forms. On the morning programs it came from journalists trying to be informal. After a piece about global warming on CNN’s “American Morning,” for instance, the anchor Soledad O’Brien offered, “So that videotape there, and really what’s happening on the glacier, is definitive proof that there’s global warming.” The correspondent Miles O’Brien takes her one further. “Yes, but it’s just one more little piece. There’s a big stack of evidence now . . . The real question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to stop using SUVs?”
On Fox News, during the same hour, the co-anchor E.D. Hill was defending the Bush administration from criticisms by the former Homeland Security chief, Tom Ridge , that the administration often raised the terror alert over his objections. “If you don’t raise it and something happens, everyone’s gonna get blamed for not raising it, if you do raise it then people say, nothing happened, why’d you do it?” she said in response to Ridge’s comments, reported in USA Today that morning. “I don’t think there is any way to win on that one.” View Fox News Video Clip
Her co-anchor, Steve Doocy, made the case partisan. “And the other thing is how many times during the campaign did we hear Democrats say they are doing this for political reasons?” he asked. But Ridge, he said, “did not ever suggest they did anything like that.”
On other cable programs, opinion is a signal part of the program’s appeal. It is part of the core of “Imus in the Morning” on MSNBC. The views of Bill O’Reilly are similarly central to “The O’Reilly Factor” in prime time on Fox, as are the more liberal notions of Keith Olbermann on MSNBC.
The Range of News
Despite all the time it has to fill, the range of topics on cable was also more limited than some might expect. The four hours of this day studied on each channel offered little more than what one would have gotten from a 30-minute network evening newscast, and markedly less than one could learn from any print or online venue.
Among the other events that would be covered online and in the next morning’s newspapers: The Army would decide not to file charges against officers implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal; The Catholic Church would announce that it might cut priests’ pensions in different U.S. cities; There was a scandal brewing about evangelical proselytizing at the Air Force Academy. A new report found that bias crimes against Muslims in the U.S. were up 50% since 9/11.
Most of those stories were about trends, though, not breaking news which is what cable tends to focus most of its energy and time on. On May 11, that would include four main events: the plane scare, the murders in Zion , Ill. , the surge in violence in Iraq and the Michael Jackson trial. Those made up a third of the time studied, and even that understates how much the plane scare dominated. The story did not break until mid-day, after two of the programs sampled had aired. Looking just at the afternoon coverage, it commanded even more of the air time.3
Percent of Newshole Devoted to Top Four Stories
Percent of all Stories
Depth of Reporting
In a media environment saturated with news outlets that all offer the basic facts, a growing question among journalists is the degree to which stories explore angles that connect or make events more relevant to the audience.
Cable news, with its hours to fill and variety of programming, does little to fill any such need. For this study, we created an index of 10 different elements a story could contain that might add to a citizen’s understanding. Did a story put the event in historical context? Did it suggest where the audience could learn more? Did it suggest what might happen next?4
More than half (58%) of all major stories on cable news contained none or only one of those elements. The largest number, 36%, did not offer any, and another 21% offered just one. That was a worse rating than any other national news platform except for the 30-minute nightly newscasts, which have much less time and whose stories tend to be much shorter (though even these networks newscasts had a greater percent of stories with three of more index elements. In online stories, for instance, just 4% offered no elements. Three quarters of the stories online (72%) contained two or more.
Story Index Scores, by medium5
Percent of all Stories