D.C., Wall Street Drive Recession Stories

Bailout, stimulus package dominated coverage, not impact on consumer, study finds

Media coverage of the recession in the first half of the year was dominated by three stories from two big cities, and dropped off dramatically after the economy showed some signs of improvement, according to a just-released Pew Research Center study.

The three main stories were the banking sector bailout (15%), the fight over the stimulus package (14%) and the struggling auto industry (9%).

By contrast, stories about the recession's impact on the average consumer, including its impact on unemployment, retail food prices, retail sales, Social Security, Medicare, education, and health care combined accounted for just 8% of all the economic coverage.

According to a content analysis of coverage from the first half of 2008, that emphasis on Washington and Wall Street has meant that three quarters of the coverage had datelines from either New York (44%) or Washington (32%).

Recession coverage accounted for 46% of overall coverage in February and March, was down to 21% of the overall news hole in the next two months, and down to 16% in the following two months.

Cable news provided "the clearest example" of that waning interest, with coverage dropping two-thirds from March to April, when the Dow closed over 8,000 after four weeks of gains and there were other indicators the economy might be improving somewhat.

Leading the coverage were newspapers with 37% of coverage of national and international news on their front pages devoted to the recession, compared with the top stories on Web sites (30%), network television (29%), cable TV (28%) and radio (27%).

According to the study, network evening newscasts "distinguished themselves" from other sources with regular features focusing on the recession's impact on average Americans. By contrast, it said, cable TV was driven more by the ideological debate inside the Beltway, accounting for the drop in coverage after the story became less Washington-centric.

The study was based on information from the Project For Excellence in Journalism's weekly News Coverage Index, a content analysis of stories from a range of major media.