June 23, 2010

Datelines from a Disaster

New York Washington DC Atlanta and Los Angeles US Other Foreign
Oil Spill 32 23 4 40 1
Economic Crisis 48 35 3 11 3
Health Care 45 44 3 8
2010 Elections 41 31 4 24
Haiti 29 12 3 7 49
Overall 43 28 4 15 10

40% – Percentage of Gulf oil spill stories that have been reported from the scene

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated the headlines since the Deep Water Horizon rig exploded on April 20. Indeed, from April 20-June 20, the disaster filled more than a quarter (26%) of the newshole—more than doubling the attention to the next biggest story—the economy, at 12%. But it is not only the volume of reporting that sets the Gulf disaster apart from other news stories. The coverage also stands for the amount of  “on-scene” reporting.

According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, two out of every five stories about the oil leak have been reported from cities other than the major media capitals of Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles as well as CNN’s home base in Atlanta. And a vast majority of that reporting has come directly from the Gulf coast region.

With journalists talking to local fishermen and residents and providing footage and first-hand accounts of oily beaches, 40% of the oil spill stories originated outside the major media hubs. An additional 32% of the stories had New York datelines and 23% came from Washington.

That kind of on-scene reporting bucks the general trend in which national stories are most often reported from one of those four major news centers. Thus far in 2010, 71% of all news stories studied by PEJ have originated from New York and Washington. Just 15% of stories have been reported from other U.S. locations outside the four media centers, and only 10% have originated from international cities.

The year’s top story, the U.S. economy, was overwhelmingly reported from New York (48%) and Washington (35%). The same pattern held for the health care debate (the No. 3 story) with 45% of those stories datelined from New York and 44% from Washington. Both of those stories had strong Beltway political components.

But some of the year’s biggest stories show a more diffuse reporting pattern. While 72% of the stories about the 2010 mid-term elections (the year’s No. 4 story)  originated from New York or Washington, nearly a quarter (24%) came from non-media hub cities as key races occurred in places such as Pennsylvania, Nevada and South Carolina.

And the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January (the No. 5 story in 2010) had the most on-the-ground reporting of any major story this year. Nearly half (49%) of the Haiti stories had an international dateline while 41% came from either New York or Washington.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ