March 10, 2010

Three Years, Three Stories

Iraq War Election U.S. Economy
01/2007 24.9 5.7 0.5
02/2007 21.9 8.4 0.8
03/2007 19.7 8.3 1.3
04/2007 15.7 6.6 1.5
05/2007 18.8 9.1 0.6
06/2007 9.8 9.9 0.7
07/2007 15.5 8.9 0.9
08/2007 10.4 8.8 4.5
09/2007 23.2 9.4 2.2
10/2007 12 13.1 2.3
November 7.7 17.1 3
December 6.2 24.6 4.5
01/2008 3.7 44.5 9.5
02/2008 3.3 44.1 6
03/2008 8.3 37.1 9.9
04/2008 6.9 32.3 7.6
05/2008 3 35.6 7.1
06/2008 3.4 30.8 10.8
07/2008 5.2 29.3 14.1
08/2008 3.3 36.9 4.7
09/2008 1.5 38.6 27.2
10/2008 1.7 48.3 27.7
11/2008 2.5 16.5 22.9
12/2008 2.1 1.4 26.2
01/2009 2.2 21.7
02/2009 3.2 44.9
03/2009 1.8 44
04/2009 1.7 20.2
05/2009 1.6 19.4
06/2009 1.6 15.9
07/2009 1.9 15
08/2009 2 14.5
09/2009 1.1 10.3
10/2009 1.1 13.1
11/2009 1.1 13.7
12/2009 2 13.5

12.4% – Amount of coverage devoted to the U.S. economy from 2007 through 2009

The deep U.S. recession—which erupted into a full-blown crisis with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008—was the biggest story in the mainstream news media in 2009. It accounted for 20.3% of the overall newshole studied in the News Coverage Index of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Attention to the story peaked in February and March of 2009 (when it filled 40.9% and 40.0% respectively), when the story focused on passage of the $787 stimulus package and efforts to fix the ailing financial sector. That number fell by half (to 20.1%) by April where it continued a slow decline through the end of the year.

But the media by and large did not see this coming. Attention to the economy was minimal in 2007, filling just 1.4% of the overall newshole, despite emerging problems in the housing market. Coverage picked up in 2008—filling 6.3% in the first six months—as the housing crisis worsened and the country questioned whether it was heading into a recession. But after the September meltdown on Wall Street, when the magnitude of the crisis was revealed, coverage exploded, accounting for 21.4% in the last four months of 2008.

In all, coverage of the economy from January 1, 2007 through December 31, 2009 accounted for 12.4% of the newshole, making it the second-biggest story since the beginning of PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

In 2008, the overwhelmingly dominant story was the presidential election, which filled 33.2% of the newshole. The story exploded in January (44.5%), with the crucial Iowa caucus and remained at that high level (except for a minor dip in the summer months), peaking in October (48.3%) as the election drew near. After the November 4 vote, media coverage focused on the incoming president.

But the campaign was really a two-year story. The coverage began in earnest in early 2007 (7.4% in the first quarter) as candidacies were announced and campaigns began. And it emerged as a major story in the fourth quarter of 2007 (18.2%) as the primaries neared. Overall, the election filled 10.8% of the newshole in 2007

Even though election coverage ended at the end of 2008, the presidential campaign remains the biggest NCI story, filling 15.1% of the overall newshole since 2007.

The top story in the News Coverage Index’s first year (2007) was the war in Iraq. It filled 24.9% of the newshole in January 2007, when President Bush announced the controversial “surge” strategy to increase in the troop levels in Iraq despite opposition from Democrats in Congress. Except for a spike in September 2007 (23.2%)—when General David Petraeus released a progress report of the war—coverage trended steadily downward since that January high, likely due to decreased violence in the country and the presidential campaign vying for media attention. By December of 2007, coverage filled just 6.2% of the newshole. For all 2007, the war accounted for 15.5%.

In the past two years, attention to the war in Iraq has dropped dramatically to 3.6% of the newshole in 2008 and down further to 1.7% in 2009. Even with Iraq vanishing from the media radar screen, it registers as the third-biggest story (6.9%) since the Index began.

Users will be able to read more PEJ’s analysis of 2009 news coverage in its State of the News Media 2010 Report which will be available Monday, March 15. They will also be able to analyze PEJ’s content for 2009 on their own with a new Year in the News Interactive.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ
Date Posted: March 10, 2010