Judging from our mail, the public’s biggest frustration with news media is about what is and what isn't covered. But complaints are anecdotal, unless you count column inches and airtime minutes. Enter the News Coverage Index. Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism explains.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: What you know about the world depends largely on what you see or hear in the news. And, judging from our own mail, the public's biggest beef with the news media centers on how much certain stories are covered—or not covered.
But news consumers can never really know for sure unless they actually count the words individual news outlets devote, to, say, the war in Iraq or dead dictators, which is exactly what the Project for Excellence in Journalism is now doing—a close dissection of 48 different media outlets compiled and charted this week and every week—in their news coverage index.
PEJ Associate Director Mark Jurkowitz says it's the largest study of the news media ever attempted, and he joins us now. Mark, welcome to the show. MARK JURKOWITZ: It's good to be here, Brooke. Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I'm guessing that someone has to read The New York Times every morning, listen to Rush Limbaugh every afternoon, watch The CBS Evening News every night, in addition to 40-odd other outlets throughout the week, and tally and log the content. Am I right in this? MARK JURKOWITZ: You are right. It's not just someone. It's actually eight professional coders, who are sort of the heart and soul of this operation, who are monitoring 48 different media outlets, not only capturing them but literally maintaining them, so that we, at any point in time, can actually put our hands on those stories. And those are going to be the best-informed people in the United States of America. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I have to say it sounds like torture. You know, do they get to like take in hours of exercise in the yard? MARK JURKOWITZ: [LAUGHS] Well, I think we do allow them visits from relatives and occasional letters. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we talked about The New York Times, Rush Limbaugh, CBS Evening News. Are there any selections in there that might surprise some listeners? MARK JURKOWITZ: We're picking some small newspapers, like The Chattanooga Times Free Press and The Bakersfield Californian. We're picking a number of websites, like CNN and MSNBC, but we're also picking some of the aggregators, like Yahoo and Google. We're picking a lot of the cable talk shows, including Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and, on the liberal side, Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes. So we've picked some of the obvious suspects simply because of their reach and power and authority, but we think we have a good mix. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so your first report, which came out on Tuesday, examined the preceding week's coverage. That's December 31st to January 5th. And it's typically a slow news week in most years, a kind of holiday hangover, but not so much this year. MARK JURKOWITZ: No. We had three interesting developments in that particular week that kind of changed the tone a little bit. One was obviously the new Democratic Congress, which turned out to be the top story of the week. And, on some level, that's kind of a symbolic ceremonial story, but the mere fact that Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the house made it, I think, a bigger story than it would naturally be.
And then we had two other big stories that made it into the top five that were essentially the deaths of two world, very different world leaders. The death and the tributes to the former president, the 38th president, I think, exceeded what a lot of people thought we were going to get. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance coverage, but there seemed to be something else in the coverage, too, which was sort of a longing for Ford's kind of Midwestern decency and moderation in this particular era.
And then maybe the real surprise story of the week that snuck into the top five was the execution of Saddam Hussein, which might have, under normal circumstances, been a one-day story. After all, there wasn't a tremendous amount of coverage of the trial.
But, clearly, and we've seen this happen before, when the cell phone video emerged, showing the taunting and the actual execution of Saddam Hussein, it became one of the top five stories of the week. So it was a surprisingly newsworthy week. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I thought it was really interesting how different kinds of stories got different kinds of coverage in different kinds of mediums. Specifically, the funeral of President Ford was covered least in the newspapers. MARK JURKOWITZ: Yeah. There was really a lot of time taken up simply in the ceremonial aspects of his death on television that you just don't see on newspapers. That was certainly a very interesting distinction.
One of the things we’re also finding out is that online media give Americans the widest range of international news, at least the online media that we chose. And, for example, two stories that really didn't make it up above the radar screen, the fighting in Somalia, with the Ethiopian attack on the Islamists in Somalia, as well as the disappeared Indonesian plane crash, were top five stories online, yet they didn't really crack that list anywhere else. So we are seeing some interesting distinctions. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, one thing that was really missing for me in your index was a breakdown not just simply by medium but also by individual outlet. An example – how did NPR's morning edition differ from, say, The Washington Post? Wouldn't that be helpful? MARK JURKOWITZ: It certainly would, and that's actually one of the goals. Right now, obviously, we're looking at sector versus sector, but there is nothing to stop us from coming out with a study that says, effectively, hey, we've looked at two, three months of the coverage of the war in Iraq. Here's how The Washington Post differs from The New York Times or here's how Bill O'Reilly differs from Keith Olbermann.
And there's one other thing I should mention while we're on this subject, which is that Andrew Kohut, who does the polling at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, will be going out in the field on a regular basis to do his news interest index, in which he fundamentally asks people, what are you paying attention to? What news stories are you interested in?
We're going to, in some way, shape and form, match that up against our news coverage index, and hopefully we're going to be able to get a sense of whether or not the media and the public are in synch over what constitutes important and newsworthy information. BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Mark, thanks very much. MARK JURKOWITZ: Brooke, my pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. PEJ's News Coverage Index will be published every Tuesday at journalism.org.