TV news got a harder edge in the wake of Sept. 11, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, but it didn't last. Some news executives, though, strongly question the organization's definition, which doesn't classify the Enron collapse or the Catholic Church sex scandals as hard-news stories.
"Despite the war on terrorism and conflict in the Middle East, the news Americans see on network television has softened considerably since last fall, to the point that it now looks more like it did before the terrorist attacks than immediately after," says PEJ's new study. "Celebrity and lifestyle coverage, which last fall had all but vanished from evening news and was subordinated even in morning news, has returned to levels close to those of last summer."
Cutbacks have left the networks inadequately staffed to cover world events over a sustained period, researchers suggest, forcing a redefinition of the news that divides stories into breaking and feature and departs from the beat reporting of the past.
Whereas fewer than half of evening-news stories would fit the PEJ definition of hard news a year ago, 80% did so just after Sept. 11. Starting with the new year, though, the percentage fell back to just over half. In 1977, the study notes, two-thirds of evening-news stories dealt with what the study terms "hard news."
But news execs argue the study's classifications seem arbitrary, overly narrow. "Hard news" classifications include government, military, domestic and foreign affairs. Major stories like the Enron collapse and sex scandals in the Catholic Church fall into the categories of business/economy and religion, respectively.
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Executive Producer Paul Slavin voices concern about the study's methodology, finding the story classifications vague at best. "Is business and economy a hard story or a soft story?" he asks rhetorically. "Aren't crime, law and business hard stories? What about an important story about a new drug? Aren't stories about investors, the fines against Merrill Lynch hard news? If those are soft stories, I'm guilty as charged."
Researchers counter that those Enron and Catholic Church stories, while prominent, did not dominate mornings or evenings and would have only marginally affected the counts had they been classified as hard news. The story of Andrea Yates, the Houston woman who drowned her children, say, was a bigger story on morning TV than Enron was, and the Catholic Church story accounted for only 2% of evening-news and 1% or morning-news stories.
Feature stories, the study said, are back to 20% of evening newscasts and, predictably, even more in the mornings. The overall findings refute "the idea that television journalism was somehow scared straight or fundamentally changed by the attack on American and the war on terrorism," PEJ says.
"Were it not for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis," the study says, "the story of network television this year would likely have been the trend toward its becoming even softer than before Sept. 11."
ABC's evening news was first in hard news for the period Jan. 1-April 5, with 54%, followed by CBS (unchanged from last year at 53%) and NBC (47%). Within hard news, military and foreign coverage has replaced many domestic issues, PEJ says.
An NBC News spokeswoman observes that "these studies are often based on old assumptions on what news is. The fact is, the country has responded to all three nightly newscasts with an increase in viewership, and that's the most important study."A CBS spokeswoman says the network has "always been committed to hard news. That hasn't changed since 9/11."
Counters PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel, "The evening news is only 19 minutes a night. The networks have two hours every morning and often an hour in prime time to do those other stories. They've shrunk the hard-news hole. 'What happened today' is now effectively about 81/2 minutes."
Researcher Andrew Tyndall, who supplied the study's raw data, acknowledges there may be an "intermediate group" between the study's defined "hard news" and celebrity/lifestyle news. "There's no doubt that there's been a dramatic change in the levels of hard news since October," he says, "although I believe those levels were unsustainable. But there were those who commented that 9/11 was a wake-up call for the media. This report has documented that there was no radical, permanent change."