Years ago, I got interested in the question of what stories newspapers choose to focus on, which they downplay and which they ignore altogether. I built a set of tools which performed searches on a set of internet news sites and mapped the results, trying to show areas of high and low media attention around the globe.
There’s two major problems with this approach. One, most news sites don’t make it very easy to access this data – I’m using a technique called “screenscraping” which is notoriously unreliable and prone to breakage – if you visit the site I’ve got for this research, you’ll discover that most of these scripts are broken on any given day. But the harder problem is that it’s very hard to decide what a particular news story is about just based on boolean searches. For example, if you’re looking for articles about the nation of “Chad”, a search for “Chad” on Google News is going to get you quaterback Chad Pennington and drummer Chad Smith at least as often as it matches news on Central Africa.
A much more accurate approach – though far more resource intensive – would be to have human beings read the New York Times and a few dozen other news sources every day and tag each story in terms of subject, countries represented, etcetera. And that’s precisely what the folks at the Project for Excellence in Journalism have started to do. Two weeks ago, they launched the PEJ News Index, which monitors 48 US-based news outlets, some every day, some on alternate days. The outlets include newspapers, broadcast television, cable television, radio and internet news sites. While most of the sources listed have a broad audience, the newspapers included feature newspapers read nationwide, as well as some read primarily in mid-sized and small cities. Eight people take turns monitoring these sources, coding each story as to what topic it addresses, for how many minutes or words.
The result is a weekly index of how the “newshole” of American media focuses on different stories. This week’s analysis finds that debates about US policy in Iraq occupied 34% of the total newshole, with stories about the new Congress coming in second with 7%. The news distribution can be very different between mediums – in online media, the US attack on Somali targets got half as much attention as the Iraq policy debate (22% versus 11%), while on network TV, the ratio was nine to one (43% versus 5%.) There’s interesting newsgathering factors that can help explain this disparity – since very few TV reporters are on the ground in Somalia, it’s hard to provide visuals for this story, which makes TV stations less likely to cover it. But there’s also some evidence that online media may have more international news than other media – the online index is the only one where the bombings of the US Embassy in Greece and the lost Indonesian plane make the top ten news stories. Because sites like Google News have so much more “shelf space” than broadcast television, they can offer a greater diversity of news stories, rather than choosing stories likely to appeal to as broad as possible an audience. If this trend holds true, it’s an interesting commentary on the long tail effect in online media and the differences between the broadcast model and the “random access media” that we’re growing to have on the web.
There’s lots and lots more that I’m anxious to see PEJ take on: comparisons between coverage in individual media properties will be fascinating, juxtaposing NPR Morning edition against CBS news, or Newshour with Jim Lehrer against Lou Dobbs tonight. PEJ plans to start covering bloggers at some point in the future, which should add useful fuel to debates about whether bloggers are more or less global than mainstream media. I’ve got high hopes that PEJ will add some international media to the mix – looking at coverage from Al Jazeera International or BBC versus CNN would be fascinating as well.
In the meantime, if you want hard evidence that American media is obsessed with American issues at the expense of international issues, you’ve got two weeks of it, with a promise of much, much more to come.
I heard about PEJ’s index on the brilliant On the Media, a weekly hour-long program produced by WNYC public radio in New York City. I can’t get in WNYC on my radio, but the show is available as a podcast (thanks to Dave Winer for pointing me towards it), and it’s become such a part of my media diet that I’ve just become a member of WNYC (as well as my local NPR, which doesn’t carry the program) just to support the show. With content like a hip-hop remix of the scrap between cable “news” hosts Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, how can you not love this show?