Was journalism, or at least that of network television, changed by the events of September 11th?

Despite the war on terrorism and conflict in the Middle East, the news Americans see on network television has softened considerably since last fall, to the point that it now looks more like it did before the terrorist attacks than immediately after, according to a new study.

Celebrity and lifestyle coverage, which last fall had all but vanished from evening news and was subordinated even in morning news, has returned to levels close to those of last summer, according to the study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Traditional hard news, meanwhile, has shrunk, reestablishing a trend toward the softening of network news evident since the late 1970s.

At night, stories about national and international affairs have fallen by 33% since October—to just over half of all stories. Lifestyle coverage, which had disappeared almost entirely, again makes up 18% of the evening newscasts. Evening news in other words, now looks much as it did before September 11th.1

The return to form of morning news is less complete. Lifestyle and celebrity coverage again dominate—up three fold since October. Hard news has fallen by more than half.

Still, viewers now can get a diet of some hard news in the mornings, something that was not true last summer, the study found.

The findings seem to refute the idea that television journalism was somehow scared straight or fundamentally changed by the attack on America and the war on terrorism.

Topics in the Evening News
Percent of Total Stories
All Networks
Hard News 45.5% 80.2% 53.9%
Homeland Sec. na na 4.5
Celebrity/Entertainment 4.7 0 1.8
Crime/Law Courts 11.7 3.5 11.7
Business/Economy 14.1 4.5 11.2
Science/Technology 4.2 10.9 1.9
Lifestyle Features 18.3 1.0 17.5
Religion 1.4 0 2.0
Total 100 100 100

Rather, the data suggest that traditional broadcast networks have established levels—perhaps a formula—of how much hard news a show will broadcast and stray from that temporarily only when major news is breaking. Research from media analyst Andrew Tyndall suggests this generally happens in just 5-10% of the network evening broadcasts each year.

Whether this either-or mentality reflects the tastes of American citizens, the cost of covering hard news, or simply the habits and tendencies of news executives, is more difficult to discern.

This is the third report of war coverage by the Project, which is affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The study examined story counts, rather than minutes, for the first 13 weeks of weekday network news programming from January 1, 2002, through April 5. It was executed and coded by the Project in collaboration with media researcher Andrew Tyndall.

The earlier studies indicated that the war did engender a colossal shift in emphasis in network news.

For a time last fall television journalism took on a seriousness even beyond that of the 1970s. Eight in ten evening news stories concerned government, national or international affairs, up 76% from a few months earlier. On morning shows, coverage of such matters was up seven fold.

The findings defied historic trends, which had seen the quotient of such hard news on television steadily drop across three decades. An earlier study by the Project had found that traditional hard news about government, the military, national and international affairs had fallen from close to 70% of the nightly news in 1977, to about 60% in 1987, down to 40% in 1997.2

Separate research addressing the same issue by Andrew Tyndall also indicates that the ratio of hard news to features has shrunk. Since 1988, as the networks have sold more advertising and shrunk their newshole, the time spent on features has remained steady and the lost minutes have been subtracted from hard news instead.

Evening News Topics Over Time
ALL NETWORKS 1977 1987 1997
Hard News 67.3% 58.3% 41.3%
Celebrity News 2 3.3 7.7
Crime/ Law/ Courts 8 6.8 13
Business/ Economy 5.5 11.1 7.4
Science and Technology 3.5 4.5 5.8
Lifestyle Features 13.5 16.2 24.8
Total 100 100 100

The reversal of this trend after the attack led many observers to speculate that the country and news media were both entering a new phase.

One reason for the speculation was that the sudden change in the news agenda last fall was coupled with changes in attitudes towards journalists. Public opinion polls showed that Americans thought favorably of the more serious coverage. Even more significant, pollsters found the first upturn in approval of journalists’ morality, intentions and impact on society in 15 years.3

As people thought better of journalists and their coverage, more people started watching TV news, reading newspapers and using news websites, again in contrast with long-term trends.

Between late September and mid November last fall, all three evening newscasts enjoyed sizable increases in viewership over the year before, in contrast with long-term declines. Morning news shows were seeing a smaller but still real increase.4

This year, the number of total viewers is still up in the first quarter over the year before, though not as much as last fall. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research, ABC World News Tonight is up 6%, NBC Nightly News up 2% and CBS Evening News up 1%.

The morning shows, which saw more subtle increases last fall, have actually done a better job of holding on to some of that audience. ABC’s Good Morning America, which was up 8% last fall in total viewership, is now up 11% compared to the same period last year while NBC Today Show is up 5%. Total viewership for the CBS Early Show, however, has fallen by 1%.

1 Due to a coding error, the evening news percentages for 2002 have been recalculated to match earlier studies. Some percentages changed slightly. The percentage of so-called hard news, for instance, rose by 2.2 percentage points. The percentage of celebrity news rose by .1 percentage points. The percentage of lifestyle coverage dropped by .8 percentage points. The largest change was in crime coverage, which rose by 3.4 percentage points. The new percentages, reflected throughout, do not change any of the conclusions of the study.

2 Changing Definitions of News: A Look at the Mainstream Press Over 20 Years, Project for Excellence in Journalism, March 6, 1998.

3 “Terror Coverage Boosts News Media’s Image,” The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, November 28, 2001.

4 In evening news, during the four-week period between September 24 and November 11 of last year, ABC was up 15% over the same period a year earlier, CBS up 9% and NBC up 7%, according to Nielsen Media Research. In the morning, in the four-week period following September 11, the biggest winner was ABC’s Good Morning America, up 8% in total viewers.