Having spent a number of years in the business of counting the amount of time that TV news gives to this story or the other, I always found the "Here's What Was On" function of the job far less interesting than the "Here's Who Covered What Differently" angle.
So it was with great interest that I read today's Project for Excellence in Journalism report that summed up the first quarter of this year's cable new agenda, breaking down what the three cable networks deemed newsworthy, and to what extent.
It's not pretty. As much as it's old hat to raise questions about Fox News Channel's coverage of political issues, it was still surprising (even to a cynical eye) to see that FNC gave less than half the airtime that MSNBC did to coverage of the war in Iraq -- 15 percent of its airtime versus 31 percent for MSNBC. CNN devoted a quarter of its airtime to the war.
Another notable aspect of FNC's news coverage? According to the report:
If Fox was less focused on the Iraq War, what took its place? Mostly—according to the numbers—Anna Nicole Smith. Coverage of her death trailed just barely the airtime spent on the Iraq policy debate, accounting for 9.6% of all the Fox content studied (versus 10.1% for the Iraq policy debate). Fox also stood out for its lack of coverage on the firings of the U.S. attorneys, compared with the other channels. The story, which gained real momentum in mid March, consumed a mere 2% of Fox's total airtime. CNN devoted twice that percent (4%) and MSNBC four times (8%).And this information isn't coming from a partisan source. It's coming from the well-regarded Project for Excellence in Journalism. (Though Roger Ailes disagrees.)
It's easy to play partisan footsie with Fox News Channel about this memo or that memo, but while such anecdotes are interesting – not to mention great fodder for the shoutfests – they're not as telling as Actual Data. And today's study isn't the first time that FNC has demonstrated quantifiable news judgement that is, at least, aberrant.
Before you file this under editorial discretion, remember the study about global perceptions that came out in 2003. In it, participants were asked three questions (that would have correctly been answered 'no'):
Later in the study, the researchers compared the answers to these questions against where the participants said they got their news and information from. 80 percent of Fox News Channel viewers answered 'yes' to at least one of these questions. (With 2/3 thinking an Iraq-Al Qaeda link had been proven, 1/3 thinking WMDs had been found in Iraq and 35 percent thinking world opinion supported the invasion.)
The smashmouth approach to news that makes the Fox News Channel more attractive and watchable – it is, in many dayparts, the most watched – doesn't seem to lead to more informed viewers. (Though at times it's debatable how much news is imparted on any of the news networks.) When you score last on viewer comprehension and highest for AnnaMania, it's time to take a look in the mirror.