Media Coverage of Government Is Declining

By: Will Lester, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Except for a brief increase after the Sept. 11 attacks, the amount of media coverage of the federal government has declined significantly over the last 20 years, a new survey found.

The increased coverage after the terrorist attacks focused mostly on the White House, said the survey released Wednesday by the Council for Excellence in Government.

The group surveyed news coverage in the first year of the Reagan administration, the first year of the Clinton administration and the first year of the current Bush administration — looking at 30,000 stories from both the national network news and the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and four regional newspapers — the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, The Des Moines (Iowa) Register, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

“Television and newspapers are the modern civics teachers for most of us,” said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive of the Council, explaining the need for such periodic surveys.

The survey found the number of stories about the federal government dropped by 31% on TV news over the length of the study, 12% in the national newspapers, and 39% in the four regional newspapers.

Coverage of government activity sharply increased after Sept. 11, 2001, though that subsided several months later, according to other media studies.

“The fact that the press doesn’t cover government as much as it used to reflects a bigger change, that a lot of our media now is focused on entertainment, celebrity, and soap opera crime,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “It’s hard to imagine the president doing anything that can compete with Kobe Bryant.”

He was referring to the Los Angeles Lakers star charged with sexually assaulting a woman in Colorado.

Other findings in the survey:

* The average amount of time dedicated to news stories in nightly network news shows has decreased steadily over the last 20 years — from just over 22 minutes in 1981 to just over 18 minutes in 2001.

* The attacks on Sept. 11 accounted for four times as many network news stories as any other topic in 2001.

Between the terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan, and the anthrax mailings, there was little room left for any other stories to get much attention during the last part of 2001. Only taxes and health care broke up the focus on terrorism during the rest of 2001, the study found.

“Given 9-11, the dramatic nature of how he got elected and the economy, one would expect news about President Bush to have spiked up a lot in the first year,” said Rosenstiel. “He was like an invisible president before 9-11. That helped Bush because he was changing the political agenda and doing so below the radar.”

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