Economy, Disasters Trump Health, War in US News Coverage

January 12, 2011

pew-research-top-stories-2010-jan11.gifThe number one US news story of 2010 was the weakened economy, according to News Coverage Index data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Economic news accounted for between 13% and 17% of the overall coverage studied in every quarter of 2010, and 14% overall.

Yet, Pew analysis indicates the economy was often overshadowed by bigger breaking news events. Although it was the first or second story 39 weeks out of 50, the economy filled more than 30% of the news studied only once. The high water mark, 41%, came late in the year, the week of Dec. 6-12, 2010, when President Obama and congressional Republicans struck a deal on extending tax cuts. Health care, the election and the oil spill together passed the 30% threshold nine times.

The number two story of 2010 was the midterm election season (10%), followed by the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill (7%). The debate regarding health care reform (5%) and the war in Afghanistan (4%) rounded out the top five stories.

Public Pays Attention to Economy, Maintains Interest in Breaking News after Coverage Fades

For its part, the public paid close attention to the nervous economic news. The news media’s number one 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.

In the case of several major events, including the Haiti earthquake, health care reform legislation, and 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 US commander in Afghanistan.

Celebrities Drop off 2010 List

pew-top-news-stories-2010-compared-2009-jan-2011.JPGAlthough they respectively ranked at number nine and 10 in 2009 with only 1% of total news coverage each, late pop singer Michael Jackson and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not make the list in 2010. While it is not surprising interest in these two individuals would lessen in 2010, it is worth noting that no individual person was a top 10 story in 2010.

Replacing Jackson and Sotomayor in the ninth and 10th spots in 2010 were the issues of education and immigration. Two other topics, Iran and swine flu, were replaced by 2010 disasters of the Haiti earthquake and BP oil spill. The other notable change was a decline in how many stories focused on the economy, number one in both years but the subject of 20% of 2009’s news stories.

Americans Mistrust Media More than Ever

A record 57% of Americans say they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly, according to a September 2010 Gallup poll. 2010 marks the fourth straight year a majority of Americans distrust the impartiality of the media. The 57% of Americans who express little or no trust in the mass media is slightly higher than the 56% recorded in 2009, while the 43% of Americans who express a great deal or fair amount of trust ties the record low.

About the Data: PEJ’s News Coverage Index monitors news in 52 different mainstream media outlets from print, online, cable, network broadcast and radio.


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