PEJ News Coverage Index: May 4 - 10, 2009, Economy Up and Flu Down in a Stressful Week

May 12, 2009

The news narrative shifted significantly last week as the stress tests for troubled banks overshadowed a flu outbreak that suddenly seemed less stressful. 

The release of the financial health reports of 19 major banks helped make the economic crisis the top story from May 4-10, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The economy’s health filled 21% of the newshole studied in PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index during the week. That’s double the coverage of the previous week and the most attention the financial meltdown has received in the 55 media outlets included in the NCI in six weeks. Two related subjects, the President’s plan to crack down on overseas tax havens and the troubled auto industry, filled about another 8% of the newshole.

Conversely, coverage of the swine flu outbreak—while still the No. 2 story at 9%—plunged by more than two-thirds last week as evidence suggested the virus was less severe than previously feared. The previous week, the potential for a pandemic had overwhelmingly dominated the news agenda, accounting for 31% of the coverage and crowding most other subjects out of the headlines.

With its new name, H1N1 rather than swine flu, the global health threat had to share attention last week with some overseas national security threats. The volatile situation in Pakistan, where that nation’s military battled the Taliban, was the No. 3 story, at 5%. But the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan accounted for an additional 3%, while Obama’s May 6 meeting with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan filled another 3%. That brought coverage of what some in the media and Washington are now calling the “Af-Pak” crisis—depicted by the administration as one inextricably intertwined geopolitical challenge—to 11% of the week’s newshole.

Still, it was the fragile state of the economy that re-emerged as the dominant story last week—with several caveats. The level of press attention still pales in comparison to earlier in the year. (In the first two months after Obama’s inauguration, the subject filled 43% of the newshole.) And to some extent, economic coverage is pegged to specific events and milestones—such as last week’s release of the bank stress tests. When such signposts emerge, media interest seems to spike. When there are not such visible measures of economic health, tracking the state of the economy becomes more difficult for the media, more of a subterranean slog.  

Read the full report Economy Up and Flu Down in a Stressful Week on the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.

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