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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The Cable News Agenda: The Election, The Election, The Election

In a news year dominated by two major stories, the television sector with the most time to fill, cable news, offered the narrowest news agenda of all. According to an analysis of the coverage examined by PEJ, the cable TV channels spent about three out of every five minutes on a single story: the 2008 presidential election.

That helped them enjoy sizable ratings increases in 2008, but it raised the question going forward of whether these outlets had a second act that would retain their audience once the ballots were cast, and the early indicators were mixed. CNN and MSNBC lost much of their audience gains. Fox, after a drop, saw its audience jump in the early days of the Obama administration. (See Cable Audience Section)

Cable’s affinity for the presidential election was foreshadowed in 2007, when the sector devoted 15% of the airtime studied to the early stages of the race. But in 2008, that level of coverage swelled to 59%.

The attention was not evenly dispersed. There are—literally and figuratively—day and night differences in news priorities, with the talk-oriented prime-time lineups responsible for the lopsided focus on the election. And within the cable universe itself, MSNBC, the self-proclaimed “Place for Politics,” distinguished itself from CNN and the Fox News Channel with an even more spectacularly single-minded focus on the election throughout the day.

Top Stories: Cable vs. Other Media Sectors
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
Note: Election includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
U.S. Economy includes stories about the financial crisis, economic numbers, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
Iraq War includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and Iraq homefront

The cable television news agenda in 2008 was the most constricted of any of the five basic media sectors studied—radio, online, network television, newspapers and cable. The campaign, election results and subsequent transition to the Obama administration accounted for 59% of all the airtime studied on CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC. That translates into about 60% more coverage on cable than the election received in the media over all, even with the election the top story in all media sectors.

The other part of the picture is the news that was squeezed out by the medium’s election-centric fascination. The floundering U.S. economy, which exploded as a major news story in mid-September with the sharp decline on Wall Street and distress in the banking industry, accounted for 10% of the airtime studied on cable—a third less than the 15% of over all media coverage last year, and the smallest of any sector studied.

The constriction also extended to the Iraq war and foreign news in general in 2008. While coverage of Iraq decreased in the media over all by about three quarters from 2007 to 2008, it plunged by almost 90% in cable (to only 2% of the newshole from 15% in 2007), making it the sector devoting the least attention to one of the longest wars in U.S. history.

And it wasn’t just Iraq. Any news from overseas was hard to find on cable. Only 8% of the newshole studied was filled by coverage of foreign events. That compares with 17% for global news in the media over all. The combined cable coverage of such international stories as Afghanistan and Pakistan—two nations deeply intertwined with U.S. security interests—filled about 1% of the newshole, about 30% as much coverage as in the media over all.

Instead of simmering foreign or domestic news, cable tended to focus its non-election airtime on more attention-getting, one-time events. The deadly Mumbai attacks that terrorized India, for example, generated more coverage in cable than any other sector. It was also the only media platform in which the Caylee Anthony case, involving the missing toddler in Orlando, Florida, whose mother was charged with her murder, was a top-10 story for the year. The same is true of the splashy sex scandal that ensnared the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, in Washington.

Top Stories: Cable vs. Media Over All
Percent of Newshole

Media Over All
Election* 59% Election* 36%
U.S. Economy 10 U.S. Economy 15
Blagojevich Scandal 2 Iraq War 4
Iraq War 2 Domestic Terrorism 1
Immigration 1 2008 Olympics 1
Mumbai Terror Attacks 1 Blagojevich Scandal 1
Domestic Terrorism 1 Afghanistan 1
Caylee Anthony 1 Pakistan 1
Spitzer Scandal 1 Immigration 1
Scott McClellan’s Book 1 Georgia/Russia Conflict 1

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

Daytime Vs. Prime Time: Night and Day

There was more coverage of the Mumbai, Caylee Anthony and Spitzer stories in daytime cable than on prime time, which hints at another finding clear in the data from 2008.

The cable news universe is divided into distinctly different parts. During the day, the emphasis is more on covering a handful of breaking—or pending—news events, with a much smaller audience tuning in. At night, when the talk shows take over, commentators and pundits dissect and magnify the one or two biggest developments that lend themselves to debate and disagreement, and play to audiences that are about double that of daytime. It is this more narrowly focused prime time that attracts the most viewers, features each channel’s best-known talent and most sharply defines the personalities of the channels.

When it came to the proportion of time devoted to the two big stories of the year, daytime cable looked very much like the media over all. It spent 35% of the airtime studied on the election, almost exactly in sync with the media in general, which filled 36% of its time and space with election coverage. Daytime cable also filled 15% of its newshole with coverage of the economy, matching the output in the media over all (15%).

But the subjects that made up the remainder of airtime were quite different on daytime cable than in the media over all or on evening cable. One story in which daytime cable lagged well behind the media was the Iraq war. It accounted for only 1% of the newshole—about one-third of the over all coverage devoted to the story in the broader media. Coverage of foreign news in general was minimal, filling only 10% of the daytime newshole—a little over half the coverage that topic got in the general media (17%). The second-biggest international story, behind Iraq, was the Mumbai terror attacks (also 1%), but events such as the war in Afghanistan and the situation in neighboring Pakistan were all but ignored.

Instead, crime and disasters registered as significant topics on daytime cable. Driven by stories such as the Caylee Anthony case and a polygamy sect in Texas, general crime coverage accounted for 13% of the daytime cable newshole studied, almost three times as much as in the media over all (5%). Coverage of severe weather, including Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, helped disasters and accidents fill 8% of the daytime newshole, double the 4% in the media in general.

Viewers of prime-time cable saw a very different array of news. In the main, prime-time cable in 2008 closely resembled talk radio with pictures. Both platforms placed a premium on high-octane opining and polarizing punditry that tended to magnify the biggest stories. This resulted in relentless coverage of the election (65% in prime-time cable and 60% in talk radio) and lack of attention to the economy (8% of the newshole in both cases). Even with the relative scarcity of financial coverage, however, almost three- quarters of the prime-time newshole was given over to those two subjects—leaving precious little time for anything else.

While prime-time cable devoted more coverage to the Iraq war (2%) than daytime, it still offered only about half the attention the war received in the media over all.

And that extended to coverage of overseas events generally, which accounted for just 7% of the cable prime time studied. That was less than half that in the media over all.

Cable in the evening hours also paid only modest attention to domestic topics that were not about politics, such as disasters and lifestyle issues. They did, however, devote more coverage than the media in general to such politically related stories as the scandal involving the Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, and the book by President George Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, that was critical of his ex-boss.

Top Stories: Daytime and Evening Cable vs. Media Over All
Percent of Newshole

Daytime Cable
Evening Cable
Media Over All
Election* 35% Election* 65% Election* 36%
U.S. Economy 15 U.S. Economy 8 U.S. Economy 15
Caylee Anthony 3 Blagojevich Scandal 2 Iraq War 4
Violent Summer Weather 1 Iraq War 2 Domestic Terrorism 1
Iraq War 1 Immigration 2 2008 Olympics 1
Blagojevich Scandal 1 Mumbai Terror Attacks 1 Blagojevich Scandal 1
Spitzer Scandal 1 Domestic Terrorism 1 Afghanistan 1
Mumbai Terror Attacks 1 Scott McClellan’s Book 1 Pakistan 1
Domestic Terrorism 1 Spitzer Scandal 1 Immigration 1
Texas Polygamy Case 1 Iran 1 Georgia/Russia Conflict 1

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

Differences By Channel: MSNBC, the ‘Place for Politics,’ Stands Alone

There were distinctions among the three major cable channels themselves in prime-time news judgment. Fox News, for example, tended to focus more on crime, while CNN covered more immigration than the others. The most glaring differences, though, stemmed largely from virtually wall-to-wall coverage of the presidential election by one cable channel, MSNBC.

In 2008, MSNBC solidified its niche as a left-leaning alternative to the conservative Fox News Channel, adding Air America radio talker Rachel Maddow to a prime-time lineup that already showcased the liberal politics of “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann. (See Cable News Investment) But branding itself as the “Place for Politics” slogan may have been just as intrinsic to its identity.

Including all time slots studied, MSNBC devoted nearly three-quarters of its coverage (72%) to the election, easily outstripping CNN (55%) and Fox News (52%).

And MSBNC maintained a substantial lead in political coverage round the clock. In daytime, 50% of its newshole was filled by the election, compared with 31% on Fox News and 26% on CNN. In the evening hours, the breakdown was 80% for MSNBC, 62% for CNN and 57% for the Fox News Channel.

Top Two Stories: Coverage by Cable Channel
Percent of Newshole

Fox News
U.S. Economy

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae

MSNBC also showed more interest in political stories not directly related to the election. (One of its anchors, Chris Matthews, made political headlines of his own with speculation that he might challenge Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, in 2010, a move he ultimately decided against.)  The channel paid a bit more attention to Scott McClellan’s harsh evaluation of his former boss, focused more on former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards’ marital infidelity and devoted a bit more coverage to the Blagojevich scandal than its two rivals. (The one exception was the Spitzer scandal, which received marginally more attention on Fox News and CNN.)

MSNBC’s exceptional focus on the election translated into considerably less coverage of everything, including the faltering economy, the second-biggest story of the year. The economy accounted for only 7% of MSNBC’s coverage (less than the 12% on CNN and 10% on Fox News). That trend, too, was maintained in both daytime and evening programming.

There was less attention as well to crime, disasters and accidents and immigration on MSNBC. And while Iraq coverage was minimal on all three networks, MSNBC devoted only 4% of its airtime to foreign coverage in 2008—less than half the time allotted to international news (9%) on both Fox News and CNN.

Select Broad Topics: Coverage by Cable News Channel
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

The Cable Channels and the Candidates—Three Different Perspectives

Not only did the topic agenda vary some by network, but a close look at the content also documents that the tone did as well. In a year dominated by politics, the three cable news networks came to fill distinctly different ideological niches. MSNBC tacked farther to the left, establishing itself as a liberal counterweight to Fox News, whose lineup of programs is more conservative. CNN’s roster of commentators filled the political spectrum, but its prime-time hosts, with the exception of Lou Dobbs, tend to be more neutral, at least in their on-air presentation. (See Cable News Investment)

And there were substantial differences in how the three networks portrayed the presidential candidates during a crucial stretch of the general election—September 8 through November 2—that started after the nominating conventions and ended two days before the voting.

An examination of the tone of that campaign coverage revealed that MSNBC was much less likely to air negative segments about Barack Obama than the press over all. Just 16% of MSNBC segments studied about Obama were clearly negative in tone, compared with 27% in the news media over all. It also ran a slightly higher percentage of positive Obama stories, 40% vs. 38% in all news media.

MSNBC was also much more likely than to run negative stories about John McCain than the media over all, which was already quite rough. Fully 75% of McCain stories were negative (vs. 57% generally), while only 9% were positive (compared with 14% in the news media over all).

Fox News coverage of the candidates was in many ways the reverse of MSNBC’s. It was far more likely to air negative stories or segments about Obama than the media over all (43% vs. 27%), and much less likely to run positive ones (24% vs. 38%). Toward McCain, Fox News was more likely to be positive than other media (22% vs. 14% in the press over all) and substantially less likely to be negative (38% vs. 57% in the press over all).

CNN fell in the middle. Its coverage was closer than any other cable news channel to the press in general. If anything it was a little more critical of Obama than the media over all (36% negative versus 27% negative). For McCain, it hewed closely to the media generally.

Tone of Coverage: Obama vs. McCain
Percent of Campaign Stories, September 8-November 2, 2008

MSNBC CNN Fox News Media over all
Obama McCain Obama McCain Obama McCain Obama McCain

Fox News and some conservatives have viewed these numbers as proof of Fox’s objectivity, since the tone of coverage toward Obama and McCain were quite similar. By treating the two candidates the same, the argument went, it was the most neutral channel. We think this is a misreading of the data.

Campaigns are rare events that offer some objective measure for tone—the candidates’ standing in the polls. The candidate who is winning tends to get more positive coverage, if only because the political stories—such as strategy, tactics and the horse race— that make up the biggest percentage of campaign coverage reflect and reinforce the candidates’ standing in the race. It follows that Obama’s coverage would be “better” than McCain’s. He was winning, and indeed, most of Obama’s positive stories were horse race stories.1

If one candidate is clearly ahead and the other is struggling, and horse race stories are part of the mix studied, it makes little sense that the tone of the coverage of the two candidates would be similar. That would not reflect the reality of the race.

The question is what level of “better’ coverage is too much, which is a difficult question to answer. One way of putting the coverage of Fox News and MCNBC into perspective is to calculate the extent to which they deviated from the rest of the media by computing the statistical differences for both networks from the press over all. By this calculus, Fox News varied from the press over all by 46%, and MSNBC varied by 29%.2 Whatever one’s view is of the mainstream press, these two cable channels vary from each other even more.

Campaign Themes for Select Cable Shows
January 6 – November 3, 2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

Another indicator of how cable news treated the candidates was which election themes the hosts chose to focus on. Here again, we had some clear distinctions between MSNBC and the Fox News Channel.

On both Hannity & Colmes and the O’Reilly Factor, the No. 1 election storyline from January 1 to November 3 was one that created serious political problems for Obama and was fodder for his critics — the candidate’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. That was also the case for CNN prime-time host Anderson Cooper, who largely maintains an ideologically neutral posture on his show.

Some of the favored election storylines on MSNBC were very different, with McCain as the primary target. The second-largest narrative on Olbermann’s Countdown program was a largely unfavorable discussion of the McCain campaign’s criticisms of Obama. It was also the No. 2 storyline on the Rachel Maddow show—behind only the economy/financial crisis—which was begun late in the campaign season, in September. But even at No. 2, the McCain criticism took up a much greater amount of Maddow’s time than it did on Olbermann’s program.

Differences in How the Networks, and Individual Cable Shows, Deliver the News

In 2008, the editorial personalities of the three news cable networks were also revealed in part by their formats—the percentage of newshole allotted to correspondent-reported packages, interviews, correspondent stand-ups and anchor reads.

On CNN—with a reputation for having the most reporting resources of the three cable networks—39% of the airtime studied last year was spent on packaged reported pieces. That is another measure establishing that viewers are getting more reporting and less talk there. Compare that with 24% on Fox News and only 9% on MSNBC. CNN and Fox News devoted very similar percentages of their time to another mode of reporting, live on-air staff reports, at 16% and 17%, about twice the proportion on MSNBC (9%).

And while MSNBC had the smallest percentage of reporting-oriented formatting, it easily spent the most time on interviews—68% compared with 46% on Fox News and 31% on CNN. That perhaps fits with that network’s extensive coverage of the election, a subject often driven by the opinions of pundits and analysts in panel and discussion settings.

One other way of getting a handle on a cable network’s priorities is to compare the length of their reported segments, either the pre-produced packages or the live staff reports. In both cases, there are differences among the three cable news competitors.

Not only did CNN devote the most time to packages by a significant margin, but those reports also tended to be longer than those of their competitors. The average CNN package in 2008 ran for 2 minutes and 45 seconds, compared with 2 minutes and 25 seconds on Fox News and 2 minutes on MSNBC. Lest those differences seem relatively minor, 20 seconds is a significant chunk of time in television.

By way of comparison, there is one fundamental difference between the length of reported pieces on cable news and on the broadcast networks. The average package on the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news shows in 2008 lasted 2 minutes and 22 seconds. But the live staff reports are considerably shorter on the broadcast networks, lasting on average only 1 minute and 23 seconds. That may reflect tighter formatting on the network shows—where correspondents say their piece and are done—as opposed to the more conversational back and forth that occurs between correspondents and anchors on cable news.

Story Format on Cable News
Percent of Newshole

Interview Staff Live
Anchor Read
Live (event or ext. live)
Unedited Audio/Video
Lou Dobs Tonight 68% 12 7 13 <1 0 0
Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer 49 24 14 9 3 1 0
Anderson Cooper 360 34 44 11 5 5 <1 <1
Campbell Brown: No Bias. No Bull. 21 42 29 8 <1 <1 1
Fox News
Special Report with Brit Hume 79 1 6 14 <1 0 0
Fox Report with Shepard Smith 28 19 37 14 <1 0 2
The O’Reilly Factor 10 80 2 6 <1 <1 0
Hannity & Colmes 4 89 5 1 1 <1 0
Countdown with Keith Olbermann 21 62 4 13 <1 0 0
The Rachel Maddow Show 20 54 3 19 3 0 0
Hardball with Chris Matthews 7 84 3 5 <1 1 0
1600 Pennsylvania Ave 7 66 15 6 6 0 0
Race for the White House 6 80 9 2 4 0 0

At the level of individual programs, there were significant differences in format. Two cable news shows are constructed more like traditional broadcast newscasts: CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight and Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume (taken over in January 2009 by Bret Baier). Both leaned heavily toward reported packages, which made up about three-quarters of the time on each show.

Several other prime-time shows offered a mix of on-air formats. CNN’s Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer, a program with some elements of traditional newscast formatting, spent about half its time airing packages—with about a quarter of the show devoted to interviews. On Anderson Cooper’s 360 show on CNN, about a third of the time was taken up with reported packages with half the time devoted to interviews. Live staff reports constituted the biggest component—about one-third—of Shepard Smith’s Fox Report, but more than a quarter of the time was consumed with package reports as well.

Most of the rest of cable’s prime time is built as pure talk shows that rely largely on interviews, although here, too, there were differences. Three of the prime-time shows are all almost talk, with a heavy tilt toward interviews. Interview segments accounted for at least four-fifths of the airtime on Hannity & Colmes, Hardball and the O’Reilly Factor. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Hannity & Colmes and Hardball were among the shows devoting the most attention to the election. And O’Reilly has traditionally made his encounters with guests a linchpin of his program.

Two of MSNBC’s prime-time stars—Olbermann and Maddow—led more highly produced talk-oriented shows that devoted most of their time to interviews, but still had a relatively large chunk of reported packages. On both Countdown and the Rachel Maddow Show, interviews accounted for more than half the airtime, but about one-fifth of their time was also devoted to reported packages.

How Hosts Use the Camera and Microphone

Some hosts make their imprint on their shows by dominating their interviews and panel discussions. But other hosts also put their stamp on their shows by spending more time talking directly to the camera in more formalized monologues and commentaries. Who  are those?

It’s not, as some might have guessed, Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly.

It is other hosts on cable who spend their time talking alone directly to the camera, either delivering personalized monologues or commentaries to the audience or reading “tell stories,” anchor-narrated news stories that don’t involve a correspondent.

Matthews devoted only 5% of his airtime to this format, O’Reilly 6%, and the dueling duo of Hannity & Colmes 1%.

The hosts who in the time studied delivered more of this kind of direct-to-the audience communication are two of MSNBC’s prime-time stars and one on CNN. Olbermann, who gained fame as a sports anchor on ESPN, offered a good deal of personal commentary on his show, most notably his “special comment” segment. He was tied at 13% with CNN’s Dobbs, who no doubt spent some of that time doing “tell” stories in his more standard newscast format.

The leader among talk-oriented hosts was MSNBC’s Maddow, who filled almost one-fifth (19%) of her airtime with anchor reads. In some ways, Maddow is an atypical cable host—an openly gay woman who has something of a kinder, gentler on-air demeanor than the average prime-time cable practitioner. But she was an Air America radio talk host—a job she still has—before MSNBC plunked her into it its prime-time lineup. There is no better training ground than talk radio for delivering monologues on the air.


1. These figures differ slightly from those contained in The Color of News report  because roughly two additional weeks data have been added.

2. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Winning the Media Campaign,” October, 22, 2008.