A Quarterly Report of the PEJ News Coverage Index

Media Coverage of the Campaign Rises, War Coverage Falls, During the Second Quarter of 2007

The 2008 Presidential campaign—with its crowded field and accelerated timetable—emerged as the leading story in the American news media in the second quarter of 2007, supplanting the policy debate over Iraq. And the once lopsided gap favoring Democrats over Republicans in campaign coverage became more balanced, according to a new study of the U.S. media.

In the derby for “free media” exposure, Barack Obama overtook fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, who led in the first three months of the year, the report found. Among Republicans, the race for media attention was a tight contest among John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. And one unannounced candidate, actor and sometime politician Fred Thompson, emerged as a leading recipient of coverage even without formally entering the race. These are some of the findings drawn from the second quarterly report of the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, a weekly content analysis of a broad cross-section of American news media.

Another major change in the period from April through June of 2007 was that press coverage of the war in Iraq declined markedly. Together the three major storylines of the war—the policy debate, events on the ground, and the impact on the U.S. homefront—filled 15% of the total newshole in the quarter, a drop of roughly a third from the first three months of the year, when it filled 22%.

That decrease resulted largely from a decline in coverage of the Washington-based policy debate, which fell 42% from the first to second quarter, once the Democrats failed to impose timetables in legislation funding of the war.

The project’s weekly NCI examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media and allows a snapshot of the media agenda—what topics the media are choosing to highlight and which they are not.

The quarterly report considers 13 weeks of data together, more than 18,000 stories, allowing for deeper analysis across time, including comparisons of different news organizations and in the case of television, even different programs on the same network.

Among the findings in the second quarterly report of the PEJ’s News Coverage Index:

  • After Democrats received more than twice the coverage of Republicans in the first quarter of the year (61% to 24%), coverage evened out in the second quarter. Democrats received 42% of the coverage versus 41% for Republicans. That Republican gain came largely from a one month surge in May.
  • Attention to the Iraq war fell across all five media sectors in the second quarter. The bulk of the decline occurred after May 24, when Congress approved funding without including troop withdrawal timetables, a move widely viewed as a White House victory. In all, the policy debate filled 7% of the space or airtime in the quarter, down from 12% in the three months of the year.
  • There continue to be clear differences in the news judgments of different cable channels. As in the first quarter, the Fox News Channel devoted roughly half as much coverage to the war (8%) than its rivals, CNN (18%) and MSNBC (15%). On the subject of the presidential campaign, MSNBC stood out, providing more than twice the percent of airtime of either competitor.
  • When it came to party breakdown of the campaign coverage, the cable distinctions were found not across networks but across programs. On CNN, for instance, Paula Zahn focused more on Democrats, while Anderson Cooper spent more time on Republicans. On the Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly and Shepard Smith focused most on Democrats, while Hannity & Colmes and Brit Hume were more evenly divided between the two parties.
  • The Virginia Tech campus massacre that claimed 33 lives was the biggest story for any given week so far this year. It accounted for 51% of all coverage April 15-20. But the media’s attention to the story was fleeting: by the end of April, coverage had virtually disappeared. The policy debate in Iraq was the second most covered event of the year so far the week the president announced the “surge.” Don Imus’ firing was the third most heavily covered story of the year in any given week.
  • If media attention translates into political pressure, the argument that talk radio helped kill the immigration bill in Congress has some support in the data. Thanks to energetic opposition from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage, immigration was the biggest topic, at 16%, on conservative talk radio in the second quarter. (Liberal radio hosts were much quieter.) In the media overall immigration was the fourth-biggest story of the quarter, tripling its level from the first three months of the year.
  • Paris Hilton is no Anna Nicole Smith. Or perhaps a short stay in the slammer is no match for a mysterious death that leaves behind their heir to a fortune with uncertain parentage. In any case, the socialite’s jailhouse drama in the end attracted much less media attention than the playmate-turned-reality TV star’s death. Smith’s demise was a long-running saga that came in the eighth-biggest story of the first quarter. Hilton’s June jailing proved to be a mostly one-week story that failed to make the top-10 story list this quarter.

The Project’s News Coverage Index is designed to provide news consumers, journalists, and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms (see methodology.)

The second quarterly report of the PEJ News Coverage Index includes an examination of 18,010 stories that appeared between April 1, 2007 and June 29, 2007. The Index encompasses 13 newspapers, eight radio outlets (a mix of talk, public radio, and headline feeds), five of the top online sites, several hours a day of all three cable news channels and both network morning and evening newscast; we believe it to be the most comprehensive ongoing audit of the American press conducted. The data for the year to date includes 35,426 stories.