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Content Analysis

A Year In The News
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Sector Highlights


New Media


  • Continuing a pattern we first saw in 2008, print newspapers covered the economic crisis more extensively than any other media sector in 2009. Roughly one-quarter (25%) of all front-page coverage studied focused on the economic recession and related recovery efforts. That is more than any other media sector and more than media coverage over all (20%).1 The coverage peaked in February, shortly after President Obama’s inauguration (48%). In every month of the year, however, the economy was the top story in newspapers, never dipping below 16% of the news hole in any month.
  • Smaller newspapers studied (circulation less than 100,000) covered the economy and local news more than larger newspapers.  The smallest papers studied by PEJ — from the Herald News of Fall River, Mass., to the Anniston (Ala.) Star — devoted nearly one-third (31%) of their print news hole to covering the economy in 2009, more than second-tier papers (25%) and the largest dailies (24%). In many respects, these community papers were able to cover the overarching impact of the recession at the grassroots level, by monitoring employment, foreclosures and retail trends.
    A look at some of these stories illustrates why that might be. There was often a deeply practical element at play. On December 10, for example, an article in the Herald News  told readers who had exhausted their unemployment benefits (there were 34,000 of them in Massachusetts) how to apply for additional jobless benefits after federal legislation granted an extension. On September 1, the Anniston paper ran an article about how the community was grappling with a $2 million budget cut and deciding on what services, including a swimming pool, it could live without.
  • Smaller newspapers also focused more attention on health and medicine storylines than did larger newspapers. Between coverage of attempts to overhaul the health care system and efforts to fight swine flu, smaller newspapers with circulation less than 100,000 gave more prominent, front page play to stories about health and medicine in 2009 (15% of their news hole) compared to larger newspapers with circulation between 100,000 and 650,000 (12%) and the largest newspapers with more than 650,000 (8%). Coverage often localized these unfolding natural, national phenomena with particular emphasis on how the swine flu was affecting the local community. And, again, there was often a practical, how-to component to this more local coverage.
    On April 28, for example, the Herald News in Fall River let readers know that while the number of swine flu cases had risen in the United States, none had been reported in either Massachusetts or Rhode Island, and that local hospitals were on alert.
  • Newspapers gave much less play than other media to the death of pop music icon Michael Jackson. The death of Michael Jackson captured the public’s attention and much of the media’s in 2009. Across all media sectors, the story ranked as the No. 9 news item of the year. In newspapers, however, Jackson’s death did not rank in the in the year’s top 20 stories. After the singer’s June 25 death, newspapers paid quick tribute, making Michael Jackson’s death the fourth-largest of the entire month (3% of their coverage) at the same time that the economy (25%) and Iran’s presidential election and protests (11%) dominated.


  • Once again, in 2009, cable TV news was the place to see the most coverage of politics. For the year, 9% of time on cable was devoted to politics, compared to 5% for the media studied over all. This was more than any other media sector, but not nearly as much as in the presidential election year of 2008, when fully 56% of cable’s coverage was focused on politics.In 2009, the focus of the political debate was on a few hot-button political controversies such as the passionate political battle over health care, the performance of the Obama administration, and the debate about the best ways to combat terrorism.Health care, the most politically polarizing domestic issue of the year, was a prime topic for cable. Cable news devoted 13% of its news hole to the health care debate. From July, when the story really took off, through the end of the year, that number for cable jumped to 25%.

    For example, consider the difference between cable broadcasts and network news shows on the evening of August 7. That night, many cable talk shows led with discussions of the health care protesters attending town hall meetings with various members of Congress. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann began his show by criticizing the protesters as a front for the health care industry. CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 program led with a report by correspondent Gary Tuchman, who asked whether the protests were an example of “democracy” or “demagoguery.” And Fox News’ Sean Hannity began his show by applauding the protesters, saying they were “the real pulse of the American people.”

    That same night, however, all three broadcast network news shows and PBS’ NewsHour led with a very a different subject — a report from the Labor Department that the unemployment rate had fallen for the first time in 15 months.

    Cable also spent more time on other politically charged issues than other media such as evaluations of the Obama administration and his leadership and ideology (7% versus 5% in the media over all) and the debates surrounding domestic terrorism (6% versus 4% in the media over all).

    Even though the economy was the No. 1 subject, cable spent less time (17%) covering it than any other media sector except for network television not including PBS’ NewsHour (also at 17%).

  • Cable news was far more focused on U.S.-centric news than any other media sector. Fully 82% of cable’s coverage was about U.S. domestic topics, compared to 74% for the media over all.At the same time, cable offered the least amount of international news not focused on the U.S. Only 3% of cable’s newshole was devoted to foreign news not directly related to the U.S., which was less than half the amount of newshole devoted to such topics in any other sector.
  • The major cable networks differed in the amount foreign news offered. CNN devoted 23% to foreign news (18% to U.S.-involved events and 5% strictly foreign). Fox News devoted 18% (15% U.S.-involved and 4% non-U.S.). MSNBC devoted the least, 13%, (11% U.S.-involved and 2% non-U.S.).
    During the week following the July 16 bombings of hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, for example, CNN spent 5% of its news hole on the topic. MSNBC and Fox News each barely even mentioned it in the hours studied.
  • The subject matter of daytime cable news is significantly different from the nighttime news shows. Part of this is a function of when news happens. Fully 20% of daytime was devoted to coverage of live events, compared with 1% at night. About 19% was made up of live reports from correspondents, compared with 9% at night. Yet some of it is simply story choice. Evening cable is more focused on politics (10% vs. 6% during the day), while daytime spent more time on the economy (12% vs. 9%) and crime (9% vs. 6%).
  • Despite their differences in approaches, the basic menu of the top subject matter covered on the three cable channels was relatively similar.
    The list of the top five subjects covered by each of the channels was the same, although the order for each network was different. All three networks gave more attention to the economy, health care, the Obama administration, Afghanistan and terrorism than any other topics over the course of the year. All of these stories have clear political components that lend themselves to the round-table discussions that characterize much of cable news coverage.
  • Despite the similarities concerning the top subjects among the three channels, MSNBC did serve as an outlier from the other two channels in two significant ways. MSNBC spent far more time than its rivals on the health care  debate (20%), almost twice as much as Fox News (11%) and significantly more than CNN (8%).
    At the same time, MSNBC’s editorial priorities shift far more sharply from daytime to prime time, which cannot be said of either CNN or Fox News.


In 2009, news coverage provided by traditional broadcasters (ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS) reflected a number of patterns we have noted in previous years. There tends to be greater news priority differences between morning and evening network newscasts than among the commercial networks themselves. And PBS’ nightly NewsHour program tends to offer a different news menu than that of the commercial networks.

  • Over all, there was little difference in the news agenda among the three commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), in either the morning or the evening. In the morning, eight of the top ten stories were the same for all networks, and each network devoted virtually the same amount of combined airtime to these stories 37% on NBC, 39% on ABC, and 38% CBS. In the evening, nine of the top ten stories were the same on all three networks, consuming an even greater percentage of the total newshole — 44% on NBC and on ABC, and 47% on CBS.
  • There was, however, somewhat more diversity demonstrated by the editorial priorities between morning and evening network news broadcasts. For example, coverage of the Michael Jackson story was higher on all three morning shows than on their evening counterparts. Both the economy and Afghanistan were bigger stories on the evening newscasts than on the morning programs. The health care debate, though, was one issue that received nearly equal coverage in the morning and the evening across all three commercial networks.
    Finally, one area of news coverage in particular stands out. On morning television, crime was a much bigger topic, accounting for 12% of the news hole compared with only 5% on the evening newscasts. Much of this attention focused on a handful of stories. The recovery of kidnapping victim Jaycee Dugard, Bernard Madoff’s massive Ponzi scam, attacks by Somali pirates, the arrest of the “Craigslist killer” and the murder of Yale graduate student Annie Le — accounted for nearly 40% of all the news hole devoted to crime.
  • Compared to the national media over all, the three commercial newscasts stood out for spending less time on two of the year’s top ten stories —  domestic terror and the health care debate in Washington. Network evening news coverage of domestic terror issues (2% of news hole) was only half that of the media over all (4%), and a third of the attention given by cable at 6%.  Similarly, the three network evening newscasts devoted 5% of their time to the national debate over health care, notably less than the media over all (9%), and less than half as much as cable news (13%). At the same time, the three network evening newscasts, which traditionally have a significant focus on medical issues, put the swine flu pandemic story in the top five, devoting about double the amount of news hole (4%) as the media over all (2%) and more than three times the attention paid to this public health crisis by cable evening programs (1%). For example, in the month of October alone, as swine flu spread rapidly throughout the country and President Obama declared H1N1 (the correct designation to the misnamed swine flu) to be a national emergency, the evening networks aired a total of 71 stories about the pandemic, consuming 12% of their overall newshole.
  • The PBS NewsHour continued to stand out among the network programs for its significantly greater attention to international stories and events that did not directly involve the U.S. These types of stories accounted for 13% of the PBS news hole, roughly double that of the three commercial evening networks (8%). The NewsHour regularly devoted about twice as much airtime as its commercial evening counterparts to storylines about Iran, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Pakistan and China. On the domestic side, PBS devoted more than twice as much attention to the health care debate (11% of news hole) as the three commercial networks (5%). Not only was there more attention to health care, but the focus was different as well. The NewsHour devoted roughly twice as much airtime to efforts to describe specific components of plans (32%) as did the commercial network programs (17%).


Viewed as a broad media sector, the news agenda on radio would appear to track closely with that of the media over all, with the exception of the health care debate, which received more attention on radio — and by a wide margin. But these numbers mask big differences in the character of content offered respectively by the three distinct segments contemporary radio news and information content today — public radio, talk radio and syndicated radio news headlines. PEJ examines these three segments by studying content from National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, network headline newscasts from CBS and Mutual Radio, and some of the  most popular commercial talk radio hosts in the country, both liberal and conservative. Each element of the radio sector has its own distinct character.

  • Public radio was the go-to media platform to learn about any non-U.S. international news or events. Nearly 21% of NPR’s coverage had a foreign focus, double the number for the media over all. Only a minuscule amount of talk radio coverage had any international flavor (1%), with network headline news falling somewhere in between at 7%. Among the non-U.S. involved foreign news NPR covered in 2009 that was not covered much elsewhere were AIDS in Bolivia, farmers in India going organic, oil militants in the Niger Delta and alcohol abuse in Mongolia.
  • On talk radio, the health care debate was the top story. It filled 21% of the newshole compared with 9% in the media over all. That number was driven by liberal hosts such as Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes attacking President Obama for not going far enough. They devoted nearly one-third (31%) of the airtime studied in 2009 to that subject. Conversely, the conservative radio talkers, such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, devoted less than half that (14%) to the issue.
  • Talk radio, in particular, stood out for its ongoing focus in two areas. The platform devoted more than twice as much time to talking about the campaigns and elections, primarily the political fortunes of the Obama administration, as the media over all, about 11% vs. 5%. Talk radio shows also spent over 11% of their news hole on the media itself, six times the attention paid to the topic by the media over all. Much of that media-oriented coverage tends to be self-referential.
    And, while sometimes these discussions touched on issues that reached the national stage — the pros and cons of the Fairness Doctrine, the crisis in the newspaper industry, whether the media had gone overboard on the Michael Jackson story — far more often these discussions involved hosts talking about themselves. Sean Hannity, for instance, promoted his Freedom Concerts. Rush Limbaugh talked about polls taken on his own popularity. Michael Savage responded at length to being barred from entering Britain by the government.  Ed Schultz promoted his town hall meetings and stints on MSNBC.
  • Network headline news was the only radio segment in which crime stories were a top-five topic, accounting for almost 9% of total coverage, compared with 6% for the media over all. That coverage ranged from the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scam to the Somali pirates to  fraudulent behavior in connection with the financial crisis and its implications.


  • Online media covered more international news than any other sector. More than one-third of the online news hole (36%) either focused on strictly international matters or on how the U.S. influenced issues on the world stage, compared with 26% in the media over all. Stories with a focus on foreign affairs directly relating to the U.S. represented 18% of the online news hole and 17% concerned matters that did not involve the U.S.
  • One reason for these variations is that is among the top 12 general interest news websites in the U.S. for traffic and thus is included in this sample. However, the U.S.-based websites also gave significant attention to international events. Almost half (46%) of the leading coverage on Yahoo News, for example, featured global events. One such story was on February 12 when Yahoo News gave prominence to the Australian government’s response after deadly wildfires displaced thousands of people, a story that ran nowhere else among the websites studied that afternoon. ran the fewest international headlines among its top stories (20%) of the websites studied.
  • The economy dominated the online news agenda over all. Coverage of the grave U.S. recession and economic recovery was the No. 1 story on news websites in 2009 (21%). That was about four times the coverage of the next largest story online, the health care debate (5%). Only the newspaper sector (25%) devoted more attention to the economic crisis. Great variance existed, however, among news websites with regard to news judgment. (27%) and (25%), for instance, gave far greater priority to coverage of the economy than did AOL News (7%).
  • There were sharp differences in websites when it came to the sources of information, whether from the outside or internally. At the No. 1 website in terms of traffic, Yahoo News, 99% of the news coverage studied during the year was aggregated from elsewhere, most of it from wire services. Despite its discussions about developing its own news resources, the numbers were similar at AOL News (91% of the newshole produced by others). Among cable-based websites, was much more loyal to its own brand, with 93% of its top coverage originating internally. At, slightly less than half of the coverage was internally produced (49%). And that was much greater than what was produced by (20%), despite its connection to the NBC newsgathering operation. The top three newspaper websites continue to rely primarily on their own original content for their top stories, although there is some variation here, too. produced 98% of its leading coverage, and 95%. At the number was 72%.