After two weeks in which breaking mega-stories (Don Imus’s firing and the Virginia Tech massacre) dominated the news, two familiar ongoing issues generated the most coverage last week.
The top story was the Iraq policy debate at 15% of the overall newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from April 22-27.
Although the debate over Iraq has consistently been a top-five story in the weekly Index, this marked the first time it had been the number one story since mid-February. The crowded and active race to succeed George Bush in the White House—which included a debate among Democrats last week—followed in second place at 10%.
Both stories gained significant momentum late in the week. The policy debate—which generated the most coverage online (15%), on network TV (20%), cable news (17%) and radio (16%)—was fueled by the House’s and the Senate’s passage of Iraq funding measures with withdrawal timetables. The President upped the political ante and drama by vowing to veto the legislation. Meanwhile, the televised April 26 debate from South Carolina generated a major portion of the presidential race coverage for the week.
In last week’s Index, the April 16 shooting spree at Virginia Tech was the biggest story of the year, filling 51% of the newshole. This week, however, it fell to third place at 7%, leading only in the newspaper sector. The dramatically diminished coverage seemed to reflect some trauma fatigue as well as the realization that there are no easy explanations for the deadly rampage.
While the bloodshed in Iraq was the fourth biggest story (5%) last week, an event that reflected poorly on the Pentagon was number six at 3%. That was the April 24 Congressional testimony of Kevin Tillman and Jessica Lynch. Tillman, the brother of former NFL player Pat Tillman, talked abut how Pat’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan was initially covered up by the Pentagon. Lynch was the young servicewoman who said her capture and rescue in Iraq were portrayed in falsely heroic terms. The Tillman-Lynch news was a top five story in online, network and cable news. But coverage slowed significantly after two days.
The fifth biggest story (4%) was the death Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected Russian leader and a man who defines the term “mixed legacy.” As the Los Angeles Times put it in a front-page April 24 obit: “Yeltsin’s contradictions were as sweeping as the changes he wrought on his countrymen.” The April 23 death of famed author and journalist David Halberstam was not quite a top-10 story, filling 1% of the overall newshole. Not surprisingly, newspapers gave the most play (3%) to the distinguished career of the former New York Times staffer.
PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. It 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.
Read the full article and view charts on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.