Skip to Content View Previous Reports

A Year in the News 2010

Disaster, Economic Anxiety, but Little Interest in War

Mark Jurkowitz, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell of the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Two weeks into the year, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti and dominated the news in the United States for a month. As coverage began to subside, the climactic legislative battle over remaking the American health care system took on a feverish quality—and began its own month-long control of the news. In April, an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico commandeered the media’s attention all the way into August. And from Labor Day to Nov. 2, the midterm elections held the media’s fascination far beyond anything else.

But throughout the year, one story remained a constant—the narrative morphing and evolving to be sure, but usually conveying the same underlying message of apprehension: The No. 1 story of the year was the weakened state of the U.S. economy.

By year’s end, the economy registered among the top four stories every week studied by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in its weekly News Coverage Index. And the attention given the story was remarkably consistent. Economic news accounted for between 13% and 17% of the overall coverage studied in every quarter of 2010.

Yet, it was often overshadowed by bigger breaking news events. Although it was the first or second story 41 weeks out of 52, the economy filled more than 30% of the news studied only once. Health care, the election and the oil spill together passed that threshold nine times.

For its part, the public paid keen attention to the nervous economic news. The news media’s No. 1 story of the year consistently generated high levels of attention among news consumers, even as the major breaking stories of 2010 garnered more public interest for many weeks this year.

But surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press also found divergence between the media’s and public’s news priorities. (A fuller report on the findings of the News Interest Index is here.)

In the case of several major events—the Haiti earthquake, health care reform legislation, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill—news consumers maintained high levels of interest even after press attention had diminished. And at the other end of the spectrum, the public displayed considerably less interest than the media in several “inside the Beltway” stories, especially the comments that led to the dismissal of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

New media, meanwhile, had a varied news agenda. The blogosphere generally mirrored the mainstream media, according to PEJ’s research, while Twitter users were far more interested in technology and international affairs.

These are among the findings of a review of three different research efforts by the Pew Research Center. The weekly News Coverage Index by the Project for Excellence in Journalism measures the news the public was exposed to from the mainstream media. PEJ’s New Media Index tracks the conversation in blogs, the top news videos on YouTube and the discussion of news on Twitter. And the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ weekly New Interest Index survey measures the public reaction to that news coverage.

These complementary measures offer a unique look at the public conversation in the United States by tracking, in effect, the media stimulus and the public response to the news.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index monitors news in 52 different mainstream media outlets from print, online, cable, network broadcast and radio. The New Media Index monitors commentary on millions of news-focused blogs as identified by the web tracking site Icerocket, and the leading news topics on Twitter as identified by the web tracking site Tweetmeme.

Among the findings:

Top 10 Stories of 2010

No one story dominated the news in 2010. The biggest story, the economy, commanded just 14% of the news studied, the lowest number for a top story of the year since PEJ began its comprehensive real-time study of the news agenda in 2007.

While rarely an overwhelming focus of coverage, the economy demonstrated remarkable staying power in 2010. And in so doing, the economic narrative that began in the fall of 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers was the No. 1 story for the second year in a row.

The No. 2 story of 2010 was the midterm election season (10%), followed by the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill (7%). The debate over health care reform (5%) and the war in Afghanistan (4%) rounded out the top-five stories.

The economy was a staple of the news agenda in 2010. It registered as the No. 1 or No. 2 story in 41 of 52 weeks studied. The high water mark, 41%, came late in the year, the week of December 6-12, when President Obama and the Republicans struck a deal on extending tax cuts.

One major reason for the steady drumbeat of attention was the large number of economic indicators and storylines—from the health of the job market to the housing market to the financial sector.  Coverage of the second-biggest economic storyline, the employment picture, (the leading storyline was tax policy) remained fairly high throughout most of the year.

But other key themes spiked at different points in 2010. Attention to the financial sector, for example, peaked in the first quarter (at 17% of the economic newshole). The concern then focused on the financial health of banks and the implementation of new credit card rules. The subject of federal oversight peaked during the second quarter (22% of the economic newshole) when Congress tackled the Wall Street reform legislation.

Recession fears took up the slack in the third quarter (8% of the economic coverage). Growth numbers were revised downward, and analysts started talking about a “double dip” recession. Attention to the job market also jumped to a high water mark (20%) in those three months. In the last quarter of 2010, the subject of taxes took off (33%) as Obama and the Republicans hammered out the compromise on the Bush-era tax cuts.

The economy generated somewhat less interest on television news than in other sectors. It generated the most attention in newspapers (16% of the front-page coverage), followed by radio (15%) and online (14%). The subject accounted for 11% of the airtime studied on cable and 10% on network news.

Since the economic crisis exploded into public view more than two years ago, newspapers have consistently devoted the most coverage to the subject. But several factors may help explain the lower levels of TV attention. For one thing, subjects such as national debt and employment and budget issues don’t readily provide television-friendly graphics and visuals.

On cable, which thrives on ideological combat, the lack of pitched political battles over the economy—in contrast, say, to the major stimulus fight in early 2009—may have contributed to the relative lack of coverage in 2010.

The Press and the Public: Divergent and Dovetailing News Agendas

On some big stories—most notably the economy—the media and American news consumers were on the same page in 2010. But the media’s interest in a number of major events subsided long before the public’s, and citizens did not share the press fascination with Beltway-centric stories.

According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press—which conducts national surveys to measure which news subjects are receiving the most public attention—U.S. news consumers and news outlets both maintained a consistently close watch on economic news.

Indeed, economic news received the most or second most public attention in 32 of the 45 weeks in which public attention to the topic was tracked.

Public attention was also riveted on such big events as the Haiti earthquake, the health care reform battle, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the midterm elections.  Press coverage matched interest initially, but the public stayed focused on three of these stories—Haiti, health care reform and the oil spill—long after media attention had shifted to other emerging stories.

Just three weeks after the most intense focus on the Haiti earthquake, for example, coverage of the aftermath constituted just 8% of the newshole, exceeded by media attention to the economy and possible problems with Toyota vehicles. Yet 38% of the public still said they were following news of Haiti more closely than anything else.

And less than a month after the July 15 capping of the Deepwater Horizon, 44% of Americans continued to say they were following news about the spill and its aftermath more closely than any other topic. Yet just 3% of news coverage focused on the spill’s aftermath, as the press focus turned toward the upcoming midterm elections.

The year also proved again that Americans typically show less interest in political or Washington stories than do the media. That was the case with the resignation of top Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, and the saga of Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture official who was forced to resign after a conservative website ran an edited version of a speech she delivered to an NAACP audience.

Similarly, the 2010 midterm elections often drew far more press than public attention. Though the public eventually took a strong interest in late October, there were instances earlier in which coverage significantly outweighed interest.

During the week starting Sept. 13, for example, the media devoted 30% of the newshole to election news—including Christine O’Donnell’s upset win in the Delaware GOP Senate primary. But that week, only 11% of the public said they followed election news most closely, while 26% rated news about the economy as most important to them.

Blogs and Twitter: Two Very Different News Agendas

The agenda in new media varied in some respects from the mainstream press and echoed it in others in 2010.

Bloggers and the mainstream media agreed on four of the top five stories—the economy, the midterm elections, the health care debate and the war in Afghanistan, according to PEJ’s New Media Index.

Yet the index—which studies which news-related subjects bloggers and Twitter users are linking to—found that the discussion about the news on Twitter was fundamentally different. None of the top five mainstream or blogger subjects made the Twitter list of five top stories.

The agenda on blogs was remarkably close to that of the mainstream media, according to PEJ’s research. Blogs shared nine of the top 10 stories in 2010 with the mainstream media. That list included the economy (10%), the 2010 elections (5%) and evaluations of the Obama Administration (4%). The only differences were that the bloggers included the tea party (at 2%) and the mainstream media included the Haiti earthquake (at 2%).

Not so on Twitter. The top four stories in Twitter feeds in 2010 were all about marquee brands in the digital era: Apple (13%), Google (9%), Twitter itself (7%) and Facebook (also 7%).

There was also more international flavor to the Twitter communication. Four of the top 10 subjects for the year involved overseas issues, including the war in Afghanistan (2%), the Haiti earthquake (2%), the European economy (2%) and elections in the UK (1%). One other top 10 story on Twitter, the WikiLeaks document disseminations (2%), also had a significant international angle.

The dominance of technology topics on Twitter also suggests that the platform has a different function than the mainstream press or even blogs. At least for now, users employ Twitter in part as a consumer affairs forum, to publicize, share and critique new gadgets and advances.

By contrast, the bloggers focused on the news studied by PEJ were much more closely tied to events that mirrored the mainstream media agenda. Much of the bloggers’ conversation tended to be a debate, and often an ideological one, and hot-button issues such as global warming and President Obama’s performance are often prominent.

In that way, the findings suggest, the blogosphere partly resembles an online version of cable or radio talk shows. That is rarely seen on Twitter, according to the research.

Yet all this may evolve in the years ahead as users find new platforms and technologies and as social media, such as Facebook, becomes an even more prominent means of exchange.

The 2010 Midterms: A Tea Party Tale

In the mainstream press, the election became a major story, registering second overall, filling 10% of the coverage studied for the year. But much of that was compressed from Labor Day to Election Day. During that period, indeed, the election made up nearly a third (30%) of the newshole studied by PEJ in the mainstream media.

The key element of that coverage was the emerging political movement that coalesced around opposition to President Obama and an expansion of government and that helped propel the GOP electoral wave.

Indeed the biggest election storyline from September 13-November 2, at 13% of overall election coverage, was the impact of the tea party and one of its leading figures, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. They accounted for more coverage than the role and impact of President Obama himself, even though many observers saw the election as a referendum on the president. And they garnered twice the attention devoted to the impact on the campaign of the two top domestic issues—the economy and health care.

Much of that coverage was driven by tea party candidates who found themselves in the media’s sometimes unwelcome glare. Exhibit A was Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate. O’Donnell, who took some controversial policy positions, quickly began generating attention for decade-old comments about masturbation and “dabbl[ing] into witchcraft.” Even though she was soundly beaten in the general election, O’Donnell was a lead newsmaker in 8% of all the election stories from September 6 to November 2. The only campaign figure to get more attention, Barack Obama, wasn’t on the ballot.

Other than Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and California Governor Jerry Brown, the rest of the 10 top election newsmakers were Republicans. They included a number of tea party favorites, such as Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Joe Miller in Alaska as well as New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. A long shot candidate who was routed on November 2, Paladino generated headlines for derogatory remarks about homosexuals and a heated confrontation with a New York Post reporter. Indeed, with the exception of Rand Paul and Lisa Murkowski, who won a write-in campaign, all those GOP candidates lost on Nov. 2.

Indeed, a significant portion of the coverage of candidates like O’Donnell and Paladino had a gawking, quasi-voyeuristic component, with the media drawn to controversy and color. That didn’t necessarily add much depth to the public understanding of the tea party phenomenon. And a qualitative evaluation of election coverage finds that in much of the media, there was more of a fierce partisan argument about what the tea party was than a journalistic exploration of that subject.

The Year of the Disaster

On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded several dozen miles off the Louisiana Coast, killing 11 people. By the time the gushing leak was finally stanched, the BP oil spill had emerged as the No. 3 story of the year (7% of the newshole).

The Gulf oil spill was a slow-motion catastrophe that ran counter to the typical pattern of “one-week wonder” coverage, when the media descend on a disaster en masse and depart soon after. For the first 100 days after the rig explosion, the spill was easily the nation’s top story, at 22% of the newshole, as the media pursued three major storylines—events in the Gulf, the role of BP and the role of the Obama Administration.

Indeed the oil spill—when combined with other major events such as the devastating Haiti earthquake, the West Virginia mine accident that killed 29 and the Chilean mine drama that led to the rescue of 33—made 2010 a year of disasters.

The broad category of accidents and disasters accounted for 8% of the overall coverage in 2010, quadrupling the 2009 coverage (2%). By way of comparison, disasters—both man-made and natural—generated almost as much attention in 2010 as foreign news directly involving the U.S.

The earthquake in Haiti, which struck on January 12 and began as the dominant story of the new year, filled 21% of the newshole studied over the next four weeks. And although Haiti did not remain atop the news agenda for nearly as long as the oil spill, it too defied the “one-week wonder” pattern. For the year, the earthquake, whose effects remain a story, filled 2% of the newshole.

Two other significant 2010 disaster stories fit that traditional coverage mold more closely. The April 5 explosion that killed 29 at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia was the No. 1 story (17%) the week of April 5-11. By the following week, it had plunged to 3%. And the joyous rescue of the 33 Chilean miners was the No. 2 story from October 11-17, at 21% of the newshole. One week later, however, it was largely forgotten by the media (1%), perhaps further proof of the adage that good news is no news.

The War that Struggles for Headlines

One year ago, after coverage had grown markedly in the second half of 2009, Afghanistan finally seemed to have emerged as a major ongoing story. In 2010, however, the year when the nine-year-old war produced the highest U.S. death toll, Afghanistan receded from the headlines as the debate over U.S. policy quieted.

Coverage of Afghanistan accounted for 4% of the newshole this past year, down from 5% the previous year, a drop of 20%. Perhaps more tellingly, there was no sustained spike in coverage in 2010; in each of the four quarters it ranged only between 3% and 4% of the newshole.

What the numbers reveal is that despite the intensifying conflict on the ground, the war is not a big newsmaker without a major Washington component to the story.

It is difficult to argue that the public was clamoring for more press coverage of the conflict. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press surveyed public interest in the subject on 18 different weeks in 2010. And in virtually none of those weeks did more than 10% of the public identify Afghanistan as the story they were following most closely. Consistent with this, midterm election exit polls found only 8% of respondents saying that Afghanistan was a voting consideration for them.

In 2009, almost half (46%) the Afghanistan coverage focused on the U.S. policy debate, a storyline driven by the Obama Administration’s months-long strategy review that culminated with a 30,000-person troop surge. In 2010, however, the policy debate accounted for only one-quarter of the coverage, a major reason for the drop in overall attention to Afghanistan.

Among the other 2010 Afghan storylines, the second-biggest (20%) involved the violence on the ground. But that was followed closely (16%) by what was essentially a one-time event, Obama’s June replacement of General Stanley McChrystal with General David Petraeus as top Afghanistan commander after Rolling Stone magazine published negative comments by McChrystal and his staff about the White House.

The attention devoted to the McChrystal episode, about one-sixth of the year’s Afghanistan coverage, again reflects the media’s interest in storylines involving political intrigue.

Going forward, coverage could well spike in 2011 as the administration approaches an initial summer deadline for beginning troop withdrawals. But the lesson of 2010 seems to be that without a Beltway angle, the war in Afghanistan struggles to generate headlines.

Meanwhile, coverage of the almost-forgotten conflict in Iraq, still home to about 50,000 U.S. military personnel, dropped to a negligible 1% of the newshole in 2010—down from an already modest 2% in 2009.

CNN as the Cable Outlier

CNN is often described as the odd man out in the cable news wars. Unlike Fox and MSNBC—whose prime-time programming is dominated by ideological hosts who tilt right and left respectively—its prime-time programming does not feature a dominant ideology. Its evening lineup in 2010 was built around the valedictory season of celebrity interviewer Larry King and the on-scene reporting style of Anderson Cooper.

But a study of 2010 cable coverage reveals another major area in which CNN differentiates itself from its rivals. It has a dramatically different news agenda in terms of what it covers.

Take the two major domestic political stories. CNN devoted notably less of its time to these than its rivals. It spent 11% of the airtime studied on the midterm elections, substantially less than Fox (15%) and MSNBC (19%). The same pattern was true with the heated debate over health care, which accounted for only 4% of the CNN newshole, compared with 7% on Fox and 8% on MSNBC.

Yet CNN leaned far more heavily toward disaster stories that demanded on-scene field reporting. CNN devoted considerably more airtime to the devastating Haiti earthquake (5% for the year overall and 45% during the month after the quake) than did MSNBC and Fox (1% each for the year and 17% each for the first month). CNN’s coverage of the BP oil spill saga (12% for the year) also outstripped MSNBC’s (9%) and more than doubled Fox’s (5%).

A deeper look at the oil spill story reveals another distinction. More than half of CNN’s spill coverage (57%) focused on the breaking news aspects of the story—efforts at containment and cleanup and the impact of the disaster. And only about one-third (35%) was devoted to roles and culpability of both the federal government and BP.

Conversely both Fox (36%) and MSNBC (39%) filled only about one-third of their newshole with cleanup and containment coverage. But they devoted about one half (Fox 54% and MSNBC 53%) to the corporate and government roles and culpability storylines, which featured more of a Beltway component.

Broadly speaking, the coverage patterns seem to affirm CNN’s niche as more oriented toward big breaking news events with Fox and MSNBC more attuned to the political battlegrounds.

A Big Jump in Politics, a Big Drop in Health

Aside from major events or running stories, PEJ also examines coverage from the perspective of general topic categories. How much coverage is given to such subjects as education, lifestyle or religion, taking all the events of the year into account? Among other things, this way of measuring stories also looks at how each story about an event might have been oriented. A story about the faltering economy in the end could be a pure economic story, it could be a political story, or it might be built around human interest or more.

When looked at from that perspective, several significant patterns emerged in 2010. The year’s biggest topic, at 12% of the overall newshole, was politics. Thanks to the much-covered 2010 midterms, attention to that subject more than doubled from the 5% it registered in 2009. Coverage of disasters also increased dramatically in 2010, to 8% from only 2% in 2009.

Conversely, coverage of medicine and health fell in 2010 to 6%. One year earlier, when the debate over health care reform was in full swing and the world was worrying about an emerging H1N1 flu pandemic, it had been the No. 2 topic (at 11%). Topics such as business (4%) and crime (4%) fell from their 2009 levels of 7% and 6% respectively.

Coverage of celebrities and entertainment also dropped to less than 1% after having accounted for 2% in 2009, the year that the death of pop icon Michael Jackson was a major story.

Several other topics that have a significant impact on American life generated modest coverage in 2010. The environment, education, immigration and issues surrounding race, gender and gay rights each accounted for 2% of the newshole in 2010. In each case, that coverage was very similar to the 2009 levels, with the exception of immigration, which was less than 1% in 2009.

In 2010, only two topics—politics and foreign events that did not directly involve the U.S.—filled more than 10% of the newshole. That’s a less balanced media diet than in 2009, when five subjects ended up with double-digit coverage levels.