|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
The architecture of network TV news is a holdover from another time, an age when news consumption was something that occurred only at home — at breakfast and after work.
The way the news broke on May 11 revealed how network journalists work within that structure.
The most heavily covered story of the day, a private plane in Washington, D.C.’s “No Fly” zone, happened at noon, after the morning news shows were off the air and six and half hours before the evening newscasts.
Violence in Iraq, another of the major stories, had happened overnight. A third, an arrest in an Illinois double murder, was announced before that.
Would the evening news skip some of those stories because they were old? Or delve more deeply into them because there was more time for reporting? In the 21st century, is time an enemy of good journalism or an ally?
A close examination of one Day in the Life of the News found:
In the end, citizens would get in the 30 minutes of the three nightly commercial newscasts roughly as great a range of topics as they would from cable over four hours — and the programs averaged just 10 stories each. Yet the stories seem so attenuated on these nightly newscasts that it is less clear how much viewers retain, and fewer angles on the stories are explored than in the morning.
In the first two years of this report, we examined network news by looking at a randomly constructed month of programming. That allowed us to look at the broad contours of the network news — how many stories were on different topics, what was the general nature of the reporting, etc.
We found that morning news, the economic powerhouses at NBC and ABC, are interview-based programs, with a “softer” news agenda and stories with a more limited range of sources and viewpoints than many other media. Evening news, which still commands the biggest audience at any given moment, has a more “hard news” agenda. The reporting is generally deeper, and the stories are still told through taped, edited “packages” reported by correspondents, where the facts are double-checked and the pictures and words carefully matched.
This year, we examined one day, May 11, in detail. For network news, that meant closely studying what appeared in the first hour of the three morning shows, and in the evening scrutinizing the three commercial network evening newscasts and PBS’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” We studied the day two ways — quantitatively, breaking it down by the numbers, and qualitatively, watching the stories and forming more specific impressions based on individual stories. First, the numbers.
Depth of Reporting
The evening network newscasts on May 11 followed the pattern we have seen in earlier years of featuring deeper sourcing than other kinds of national television. First, they featured more sources in their stories. Some 40% of nightly news stories contained four or more sources, compared with 23% on morning news and 12% on cable.
Total Number of Sources in News Stories
Looking more closely at the amount of information provided about these sources so audiences could judge what they were hearing and seeing, the evening newscasts (as well as morning) again outperformed cable. (At night, 37% of stories on the commercial networks contained at least two fully identified sources, as opposed to 31% on network morning shows and 12% on cable.)
But a new index we created this year that probes how much context stories offered — in effect how many questions about a story a segment explored — favored the morning news this day, not the evening.2 Fully 39% of the major morning news stories that day touched on three or more potential elements of the events covered. On the nightly news, 27% of the stories answered three or more questions or story elements.
So the live-interview format of morning news may have limited how many sources citizens heard from, but the longer time devoted to the segments allowed room to cover more aspects of the story. In the morning those stories seemed to include looking for ways to connect people to the news in an emotional sense and, occasionally, to focus on what people themselves could do.
When it came to the other raw numbers, the commercial evening newscasts tended to stack up as less opinionated and more transparent than the morning news and cable.
Over all on the broadcast networks, both the morning and evening newscasts on May 11 were more likely than media on average to use anonymous sources. Fully 42% of the commercial evening news stories contained at least one, compared with 31% of the media generally. On the morning news, it was 40%.
Nightly news, however, was measurably more restrained than either morning news or cable when it came to reporters offering their opinions about the news. That might surprise those who complain that traditional nightly news is more filtered or controlled by the journalists than the more live and open format of morning and cable. On May 11, 32% of commercial evening news stories contained reporters’ opinions. That was less than on morning news (48%) or cable (45%). Yet all of national television features more opinion than the media generally (13%). Here, incidentally, network news and cable stand in contrast to local TV news (1%).
To see this in practice, it is useful to walk through the day of network news as it happened.
The Day Begins: Morning News
As the day began, all three morning newscasts skipped a series of major stories that had happened overnight and would become major news in the next day’s newspapers. In Iraq, for instance, a day of brutal bombings seemed to culminate two weeks of escalating terror and would lead the New York Times the next day. The morning shows referred to them only in passing. In Afghanistan, the worst anti-American protests since the overthrow of the Taliban had occurred in reaction to U.S. press accounts of treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. That was also a Page 1 story in the papers the next day but absent from the morning shows.
At the same time, the three shows were also fairly similar in approach and even to some degree in what they did cover.
All gave a fair amount of attention, for instance, to the news that a day earlier the authorities in the former Russian republic of Georgia had found an unexploded grenade about 100 feet away from where President Bush had given a speech.
Top Story Treatment on Morning News May 11th
That story, about which the details were confused, was never more than an inside brief in any newspaper in our sample, at most a few paragraphs. Yet something about it made it more attractive for TV.
The three morning shows even agreed on how to cover the grenade story; they did so identically. Each began with a “live” report from a correspondent outlining the facts. Then each followed with an interview with, as it happened, the same person, a former Secret Service agent who now worked for Citibank. Thus in the end, each of the reports heard from basically one source, the consultant. Everything else was filtered through the correspondent.
Despite the similarity in style, however, the facts of this story were conflicting and differed from network to network. The crowd the president spoke to seemed to vary in size — it was 50,000 on ABC and then also 150,000. It was 100,000 on CBS. The hand grenade was “not operational” on ABC, but it apparently was operational and was “later rendered safe” on NBC. Was it a Soviet-made grenade, sounding distinctly military? Or was it an engineering grenade for demolition purposes? Or a dummy used for training that was not actually explosive? Had people seen it thrown, as one account put it, or was it found and possibly missed in an earlier security sweep, as another suggested? The answers differed depending on which program one watched.3
The seriousness of the incident was also a little hard to determine, and the networks seemed unsure themselves how to portray it. Pierre Thomas on ABC said “something very scary may have happened.” Bill Plante on CBS said, “It could have been fatal if detonated at close range, but the Georgian security chief says the president was in no danger and that it was unlikely that the grenade would have been detonated.” In other words, it wasn’t close enough to the president to be fatal and the grenade couldn’t detonate. And viewers who watched NBC would have learned that the President was surrounded by bulletproof glass in any case — even if the grenade had been operational, and if it had gone off, he would not have been harmed. The only real danger, the segment said, would have arisen if the grenade had been meant to create a diversion for some more serious attack.
One problem appeared to be that the Georgian authorities offered differing details of the event, but the network accounts didn’t make that clear. Instead, the journalists themselves tried to appear more certain, as if they didn’t want to acknowledge that they didn’t know.
Another quality of the stories was that each wanted to focus on the potential danger and sense of alarm. Yet even those two elements, which apparently were what made this story a lead, were somewhat hypothetical. There was no alarm at the time since the administration wasn’t informed of the grenade until hours later, and the danger was unclear because it was unclear at the time if this was a working grenade, or a dud or a dummy. (In the end it was determined to be a live grenade that did not explode.)
The morning shows all gave a good deal of attention to the murder in Zion, Ill., too. And they handled this story similarly. Two of the three did it with a live interview —the same person, Michael Waller, the prosecuting attorney from the Lake County state’s attorney’s office.
The facts this time did not differ. The main distinction among programs was that CBS and NBC — especially NBC — strove to emphasize emotion by repeating key adjectives. The “Today Show” told viewers in rapid succession that the case was “shocking… horrific… horrible…horrific…unbelievably brutal…disturbing…absolutely horrific.”
CBS told us it was “shocking…horrific…brutal…”
The habit of having anchors and reporters tell people how to react was a feature not only of this story but of others, too, on morning news. Certain words applied to several stories, among them “shocked”… “alarmed” … “stunned” … “disturbed.” In its first five stories this day, CBS used 11 such terms, and NBC 17. ABC engaged in this technique less than the others.
The terms showed up in three distinct ways. Anchors and reporters would use them in the setup or introduction of the story. Soundbites in taped stories were selected in which sources used the words. Or anchors would react after a story was over by using some of the terms as a kind of coda.
On May 11, such stories as the murder in Zion (all three networks), the story of a woman who had a needless mastectomy because her medical records had been mislabeled (NBC), the story of a woman who had been killed on an amusement ride (ABC), the case of a man whose young daughter was murdered by a sex molester living next door (CBS), and the story of a new ATM scam (ABC) all featured such emotive keywords.
In our first two years of this report we found that the morning shows were more likely to emphasize stories about lifestyle, celebrity, and crime than the networks’ evening newscasts. May 11 followed that pattern. Of the 18 story topics that were covered with more than a brief mention in the first hour of the three morning shows, five dealt with foreign affairs or terrorism, three with domestic or economic issues, six with crimes or terrible accidents, and four with celebrity/entertainment subjects.
Network Morning News Lineups
By 6:30 p.m. on May 11, not much new had happened that received significant coverage on television news in the intervening hours. Cable had been consumed largely by one event, a single-engine Cessna that had accidentally violated D.C. airspace and led to the brief evacuation of the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court, but not other federal buildings. The networks wouldn’t ignore the story.
But as it turned out, four of the five of the “news events” that the nightly newscasts covered at 6:30 had occurred the night before in the Middle East or Asia but had been skipped by the morning shows. The evening newscasts all did packages on violence in Iraq and brief tell stories on the protests in Afghanistan, and one did a brief tell story on threatening nuclear moves by North Korea.
Journalistically, timeliness was not something on May 11 that the nightly newscasts considered a prerequisite for something’s being news.
The news agenda was so starkly different between the evening and morning newscasts that just one story that had appeared in the first hour of “Good Morning America” would appear on ABC’s “World News Tonight” — even with the same anchorman on both newscasts that day only two stories were repeated on CBS, and two on NBC.4
Only one of the nightly newscasts even mentioned the story that across all media in our sample was the fourth most heavily covered of the day that the actor Macaulay Culkin had testified at Michael Jackson’s molestation trial. The network was ABC, which did a 30-second anchor read.
Nor did any of the newscasts do anything with the No. 2 story of May 11 in the media generally, news of an arrest in a murder in Zion, Ill., in which a father was accused of killing his 8-year-old daughter and her friend, supposedly for riding their bikes after he had grounded them. The case would consume several days on morning news. Records over the last year show it earned only a brief single mention on any evening newscast, a 20-second anchor read on May 10 on ABC.
The newshole on the nightly network newscasts on May 11 — the time for news after subtracting for promotions, teases, commercials, and the programs’ introductions and closes — was actually 19 minutes and 40 seconds on average. To fill that time, the commercial newscasts averaged 10 stories per program (10 on CBS, 11 on ABC, nine on NBC). Of those, three on average were anchor reads. Six were longer, taped packages. One segment on each program was a live interview with a correspondent or a newsmaker.
Perhaps to an even greater degree than we found in the mornings, viewers got strikingly similar information regardless of which of the three evening newscasts they chose. The likenesses so outweighed the differences that the biggest variable among the shows on this night was probably the differences in style and personality of the anchors, NBC’s Brian Williams, CBS’s Bob Schieffer and ABC’s Charles Gibson.
In the first two thirds of the newshole on May 11, the newscasts covered the same news, and in much the same way. In the remaining seven minutes, ABC and CBS had only one “package” that was unique to their newscasts. NBC had two, and all four were feature stories.
Network News Lead Stories, May 11, 2005
The Top Story: The D.C. Plane
Even though the scare was long over and cable news, particularly CNN, had given over most of the afternoon to it, all three commercial newscasts still chose to lead with the Cessna that wandered into restricted Washington airspace.
Indeed, all offered more than twice as much time to it than they did to any other story.
Each also began the same way, with a play-by-play retelling of the event. ABC and NBC even told the story nearly identically, with a minute by minute accounting: “11:59, the threat level at the White House and the Capitol is raised to yellow, the plane is just 15 miles away; 12:00 noon, two F-16s are scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base,” as NBC put it.
Each network also followed that with an anchor interview with one of its correspondents. Each interview tried to take a more focused look at one aspect of the incident.
That practice, of covering the lead story of the day with two or more substantial correspondent pieces, is something network evening newscasts have done since the technique was introduced by ABC News in the late 1980s. It is a way to go deeper into a story without running packages that run more than two or three minutes.
In tone, the stories on the network nightly news were also less congratulatory to the administration than the ones viewers might have seen on cable, a reflection of the fact that they contained more sources offering different perspectives.
Still, CBS was the lone network to explore whether the evacuation and response were appropriate given the potential threat, and the fact that the Air Force seemed to sense fairly quickly that the plane’s intrusion was an accident.
“Some aviation officials question the need for alarm, saying a plane as small as a Cessna could not cause significant damage or injuries,” the correspondent Bob Orr reported. “But one security official said, `The government had no choice but to treat this as an imminent threat.’ Still another mocked the hair-trigger response, saying officials `are predisposed to overreaction. Evacuate first,’ he said, `and try to figure it out later.’
“Beyond that, as it turns out, not everybody here in Washington was in the loop,” Orr continued. “For example, officials in charge of security at the Labor Department, right next to the Capitol, and other buildings say they knew nothing about the threat until the whole thing was nearly over.”
The nightly news reports included more background and context than we found on cable, though less than online or print accounts. In our index measuring how much context a story contained, 4 of the 10 reports offered at least 2 of 10 possible elements on the plane story. On cable, despite its larger newshole, it was 10 out of 29 that offered that many.
After leading with the plane scare, all three commercial evening newscasts followed with a slate of foreign stories, most of which the morning shows had skipped.
NBC and ABC each first offered a brief anchor read about the grenade incident (CBS passed) and then moved to more substantial coverage of the recent bombings in Iraq — the overnight news event the morning newscasts had ignored.
One criticism of the press is that it keeps focusing on such events, which may mask other, more positive news in Iraq. Another concern is that the incremental coverage of individual bombings may become numbing after awhile. Putting the larger picture together becomes daunting.
On this day, more than 12 hours after the incidents occurred, each of the three commercial networks tried to move beyond the news of the bombing itself. NBC addressed it briefly but mainly used it as a news peg to explore the reasons why violence in Iraq seemed to have escalated, “a particularly bloody illustration of just how serious the situation there is.” ABC used the day of violence as a hook to do a piece on why young men feel moved to become suicide bombers. CBS did a review of the day’s events, followed by a taped phone interview with the U.S. Army colonel in charge of the American offensive on Iraq ’s Syrian border.
ABC and NBC also aired another, related piece later in the newscast. ABC’s was the fourth segment in a series on dealing with pain — a joint project with USA Today — this one on the right way to treat pain from war wounds in Iraq . NBC did a feature on the death in Iraq of a Marine captain who had been part of the color guard that escorted the casket of Ronald Reagan.
Yet none of the pieces, even at lengths of two minutes, really answered the questions they were wrestling with. After two years of war, for example, the answer to why the violence continued and the recruiting of bombers thrived was ultimately probably too complicated for a two-minute story.
Terrorist activity in Iraq was a heavy news item for the evening news in 2005. Data from Andrew Tyndal’s ADT Research, which analyzes every night of the evening newscasts for the year, found that over all, the networks devoted approximately 164 minutes of their time to reporting terrorist attacks in Iraq. That number, however, represented 8% of all the evening news coverage about Iraq. The lion’s share of Iraq coverage, 44%, was about U.S.-led combat operations. Incidentally, the amount of coverage of the situation in Iraq over all fell by more than a third in 2005 from a year earlier.
The third correspondent package on each evening newscast was not among the four that dominated the news agenda in the media generally, though it might arguably have been one of the more far-reaching of the day. It was fallout from a bankruptcy judge’s decision to allow United Airlines to default on its pension plans.
The pension story was the only one to get substantial treatment in both morning and evening newscasts (an average of three minutes in the evening). Each report was an exploratory package on what was happening to pensions in America in the wake of the United Airlines ruling, and the capacity of the government’s Pension Guaranty Corp. to cover all the pensions corporate America had defaulted on.
Interestingly, that was probably the only story to get more substantial treatment on TV than in print.
The Rest of the Newscasts
From there, the newscasts moved in slightly different directions — CBS to a story about lawsuits against the Catholic Church over sex abuse, NBC to a story on the economic and environmental costs of illegal immigration in U.S. border towns.
ABC and NBC both carried stories about new computer software being used to more accurately imagine what King Tut actually looked like. It was a story ideally suited to TV, since the computer animation can be seen gradually drawing in the face. As its close, CBS ran a feature on parents teaching toddlers sign language before they learn to talk.
In the end, however, the sense one gets form May 11 is that the evening news is not an update of what viewers might have learned in the morning. It is a different newscast, aimed apparently at a different America, concerned with different issues.
On PBS, the “NewsHour” stood out as distinct, not only in evening news but against any other daily program on television we studied — cable, broadcast, national or local.
It began by handling most of the breaking news stories of the day in a news summary, with further coverage of just two — the bombings in Iraq and the plane scare. Both pieces had correspondents, tape and sound, but they were something not seen elsewhere on national TV — shorter packages, something less than a minute. Yet because they were more straight-news pieces, not thematic, magazine-style reports that tried to touch on other issues, they were fairly complete, straightforward news accounts. The retelling of the Iraq bombing story, for instance, gave more on the basic facts of the day’s violence than the longer pieces on network news.
The “NewsHour” skipped altogether the grenade story that led morning news and came second on the evening newscasts as a brief tell story. It also passed on the Jackson trial, which was a major focus of morning and cable news (MSNBC’s top story). It did nothing on the Zion murder trial, a big feature of the morning and on cable (it was Fox’s top story).
The “NewsHour’s” primary “focus” piece following its news summary was a deeper discussion of the fallout from the judge’s decision the day before that United Airlines could default on its pensions. With its substantial treatment on network evening news, this was the most heavily covered topic across network news, though not on cable.
The discussion was billed as a look at “ the likely impact of the bankruptcy judge’s decision on United, its workers, and other Americans enjoying or expecting retirement pensions.” While the piece covered much the same ground as other nightly newscasts, the taped package, followed by a 12-minute discussion between Margaret Warner and three pension experts, was more than four times longer than what appeared on the commercial newscasts and went much deeper into the story’s various elements.
That report was followed by one from the Arctic Circle on the melting of the ice pack, and how it is changing life there. The next piece was a lengthy discussion on the fights over judicial nominations. Anchor Gwen Ifill interviewed two federal judges who had “gone through the wringer” of the nomination process, Judge Charles Pickering, who eventually won a recess appointment from President Bush, and James Wynn, who never got to a vote.
The program closed with a feature on King Tut, a story carried by two of the three commercial networks.
Of the “NewsHour’s” four longer segments, in other words, half were long-term developments that were not breaking news — global warming and judicial nominations — and were not seen elsewhere on network news this day. One was a followup to breaking news, and a piece seen widely on network news. The fourth was a feature, also widely seen elsewhere. As a percentage of the newshole, more was unique on the “NewsHour” than we saw on cable or on morning or evening commercial television.
If morning and evening news on the commercial networks are not simply updates at different times of day, but in many ways different products aimed at different audiences, it presents an interesting question for network news going forward. What do these programs do if the news is something that moves online, something that is downloaded so it can be watched on demand?
Do they continue to remain distinctly different shows, which may be updated as news changes? Would the evening newscast, for instance, offer some kind of update in the morning hours for those who prefer its style? Would there be something akin to an afternoon update of the stories highlighted half a day earlier on “Good Morning America”?
Or do the networks instead offer their Web sites as their own product separate from the different programs — with elements of the shows included but with the Web as something new, the online product of the news division? That is probably closer to the direction they operate in now. But as the audience increasingly moves online, does that solution threaten to weaken the existing newscasts rather than broaden them? (The answer is somewhat more complicated, perhaps, for NBC, whose Web site is a joint operation with Microsoft.) Whatever path the networks choose, the move toward continuous newsgathering online will put new demands on the resources of the news divisions.
The path seems simpler for the “NewsHour.” It stands distinctly apart from any other evening newscast on television today. And with the change in format and decline in ratings of “Nightline” after the departure of Ted Koppel, that may be even truer in the future.
1. The only exception was that CBS did include a 20-second anchor read about North Korea that was not on other shows.
2. The index measured the presence of ten different elements that a story might contain. They were the presence of: background information, future implications, the impact of the story on citizens, a human face to the story, some separation of fact and conjecture, potential action someone could take as a citizen, potential action to take as a consumer, contact information for the journalist or news outlet, the underlying principles at play, where to go for additional information.
3. In the end, it was determined to be a live grenade hurled that failed to explode. Vladimir Arutyunian, a Georgian citizen of Armenian descent, was arrested and convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
4. On the two ABC programs, the only story that repeated was a brief tell story that evening about the Michael Jackson trial. On CBS and NBC, both the morning and evening newscasts did stories about United Airlines pensions, and the evening newscasts both had brief tell stories about the grenade incident.