First of PEJ’s Weekly ‘News Coverage Index’ Appears Tuesday

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By: Joe Strupp

The new Democratic Congress, the death of President Gerald Ford and the debate over Iraq policy were the top news stories of the past week, according to the first installment of the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s unique News Coverage Index, to be released every Tuesday.

The index uses a formula that monitors newspapers, broadcast and cable outlets, and even Web sites. In coming weeks, PEJ will unveil a series of other indices, including People in the News; a Talk Show Index from cable and radio; and a Blogger Index examining the content of the blogosphere and analyzing how it compares with that of the mainstream media.

“Different parts of the media had different priorities last week,” PEJ found. For example: “The Ford funeral, with its pomp and circumstance, was a bigger story on television. It made up 17% of the network coverage and 18% of cable, while accounting for just 4% of the coverage that began on the front page of newspapers (barely making the top five).”

Overall, the survey related: “That busy news agenda was also enough to knock off the list what otherwise might have been top stories, such as the snowstorm in the Rockies and the Ethiopian military assault on Islamists in Somalia, an event with far-reaching implications for U.S. policy. Somalia made the top-five list only online, and the snowstorm only on network TV.”

The research looks at space and time given for major stories from outlets as varied as The Washington Post and the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press. On the air, coverage from Yahoo.com, CNN and Air America Radio are reviewed along with Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel, and syndicated talker Michael Savage.

“The Index examines some four dozen news outlets in real time to determine what is being covered and what is not – a broad sense of the American news agenda,” the initial report stated. “The findings are then released in a weekly report that features an index of the top stories, a narrative analyzing the twists, turns, and trajectory of the coverage, and a breakdown of the differences among media sectors.

“The initiative is an attempt to provide an empirical basis for cataloguing and understanding what a wide swath of media offer the American public at a time of growing debate about the press’ influence, standards and economic foundation,” the report added.

The first review looked at coverage of news events from Dec. 31, 2006 to Jan, 5, 2007. It found that the most covered story was the official takeover by the new Democratic leadership, which made up 15% of the overall newshole. It was followed by the death and funeral of Gerald Ford at 12%, and the debate over U.S. Iraq policy finished third at 9%. That debate just beat out the execution of Saddam Hussein at 8%.

Coverage of events in Iraq was only the fifth biggest story at 4%, highlighted by the announcement that the U.S. death toll had reached 3,000. “In another week, that grim milestone by itself might have pushed the bloodshed in Iraq toward the top of the list,” the report said.

The PEJ’s News Coverage Index, which will be released every Tuesday, “is an ongoing study of the news agenda of a wide swath of the American press, measuring the topics covered in 48 different outlets from five sectors of the American media. The Index is an attempt to provide an empirical look at what the media are and aren’t covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. We believe it is the largest continuing study of the media agenda ever attempted.”

More from PEJ:

“The unprecedented scope and size of the media universe captured and coded will also serve as a foundation for an expanded number of more detailed studies PEJ plans to produce.

“The News Coverage Index was designed by PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel and Deputy Director Amy Mitchell and an advisory team of nine academic and commercial researchers over the course of two years. It required the creation of proprietary software and a new website.

“The index report is written by PEJ Associate Director Mark Jurkowitz, former press critic of the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix. The coding team, which will work 24 hours behind the news cycle, includes eight professional coders. They work with a coding administrator, Paul Hitlin, and a supervising research methodologist, Hong Ji.

“The News Coverage Index will also be paired with a new expanded News Interest Index by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which is led by Andrew Kohut. The Center will analyze the public?s response to the stories identified in the News Coverage Index.
These twin indices of what the media are covering, and how the public is responding will offer an unprecedented pair of tools to understand the degree to which journalists and citizens are in sync?or in disagreement?over what constitutes important news.”



The complete report can be found at www.journalism.org.



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