2005 Annual Report - Network TV Content Analysis
The Topic Agenda on Network News
As we noted last year, the time people choose for tuning in to network news changes markedly what world they will learn about. The topic agenda on the evening newscasts is very different from even the first hour of morning network news, and the PBS NewsHour is different still.
The Three Commercial Nightly Newscasts
The nightly news is the closest thing television has to a front page.
In 2004, nightly newscasts eased away from the intense coverage of foreign affairs that had built up over the previous three years. That was largely because the Iraqi war became something of a domestic story, as coverage of the war intertwined with the presidential election, especially in coverage of the torture of prisoners and the debates over U.S. intelligence. Some viewers might well consider those "government" stories as much about foreign affairs as about the Bush administration, and indeed the researcher Andrew Tyndall's accounting of network topics categorized many such pieces that way. His data show that it is normal for foreign policy to be scaled back and campaign coverage to increase every four years in synch with the presidential election cycle.7
Commercial Nightly News Topics, Over Time
Percent of All Stories
Election coverage itself accounted for just 9% of stories on the nightly newscasts. Still, that was enough to drive down coverage of some other topic areas, namely accidents, disasters, crime, and business and the economy.8
Among the three newscasts, CBS was about 50% more likely than NBC and twice as likely as ABC to air stories about unexpected events like disasters and twice as likely to air feature stories not tied to breaking news (the ethics of using high-tech duck decoys, the passage of Venus between Earth and the sun, and the American struggle to pay credit card debt). Researcher Tyndall's data for the entire year found a similar trend at CBS toward local or regional coverage, especially in a feature format, focused on topics like weather, animals, family and health.
The message, not a new one, is that the 30-minute "appointment news" format (news that is broadcast at a certain time every day.) is tightly tied to the headline stories. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the focus was even narrower in 2004 than before. The cutbacks in network resources, bureaus and reporters probably accentuated the narrowly focused nature of the nightly newscast. Or it might turn out that 2004 had an exceptionally narrow agenda because of a pair of massive preoccupations - Iraq and the presidential campaign - that sucked the oxygen out of all other coverage until the last week of the year, when the tsunami hit.
Topics on the NewsHour
The agenda of topics on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer also changed in 2004. Government coverage, as a percentage of the number of stories, remained unchanged at 24%, but foreign affairs declined by nearly half to 20%, from 39% in 2003. Even so, foreign affairs was still a much bigger part of the PBS newscast than of the commercial networks or even newspapers' front pages. In addition to an emphasis on Iraq in the feature-interview segments, the network usually also had one or two short anchor reads about Iraq in each program.
With foreign coverage declining, what replaced it? Largely, it was heavier coverage of the U.S. election and government affairs. Much of the government coverage involved stories about courts and law, and government agencies in addition to the executive branch. And as we saw last year, business and economics continued to make up a larger percentage of NewsHour coverage than we found in either network news or newspaper front pages. Fully 11% of NewsHour stories were about business and economics, 50% more than on network news and three times as much as on the front pages of newspapers, which, of course, have separate business sections for much of that news.