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Interest in terrorism news coverage wanes

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

If you believe in numbers, news coverage of the war or terrorism is just about history. The anniversary of Sept. 11 notwithstanding, the amount of time that broadcast news organizations devote to covering terrorism has virtually reached “nonstory” status, according to one measure.
The Tyndall Report, which tracks how much time the broadcast networks allocate to various topics, found that coverage of 10 stories related to terrorism comprised less than 10 percent of the nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC in August.
“Every story has a half-life,” said Andrew Tyndall, the report’s author. “At this stage, the story is no longer driven by events, but rather by attempts by journalists and the administration to create interest in it.”
Shrinking minutes
At the story’s peak just after the Sept. 11 attacks, the networks gave the bulk of their available news time to reports on various aspects of the war on terrorism. In October 2001, Mr. Tyndall counted 938 minutes of airtime dedicated to the story, out of the approximately 1250 total news minutes for the month. By November, the figure had shrunk to 617 minutes (49 percent). In June of this year, it had fallen to 112 minutes (9 percent). The Tyndall Report does not track news coverage on cable channels, nor does it include coverage aired during network magazine programs.
Mr. Tyndall’s findings are hardly taken as gospel by news managers who quibble with his methodology. Still, there is no disputing that TV coverage of terrorism has given way to the economy, kidnappings, fires and other intervening subjects.
“At this point in the cycle, it’s become kind of routine,” said Bill Shine, network executive producer, Fox News Channel. “In the beginning there was this mad dash to identify our resources, our contacts, but it is not nearly as busy as it once was.”
Newsrooms continue to have daily discussions over what makes any story newsworthy, but it is clear that the networks, if not the public, are tiring of terrorism.
“There are some days when it is important, and many days when it is not,” said Paul Friedman, executive VP of news, ABC News. “There are some days when our investigative units work to turn something out that may never see the light of day.”
Steve Capus, executive producer at “NBC Nightly News,” said that terrorism coverage remains a major topic of conversation in his daily planning sessions.
“We talk about it every day. I just hung up with Tom [Brokaw], and 90 percent of our conversation was about where we were going with this story for Sept. 11 and beyond,” he said.
Does the public still care?
Yet to be determined is to what extent the global nature of the terrorism story has affected the public’s appetite for “foreign” news. Despite the shock value of the September attacks and related concerns over international terrorism, Mr. Friedman holds that there will be little long-term effect on the way networks cover events overseas.
“It is naive to think that people will want more foreign news because of this,” he said.
“People’s interest ebbs and flows,” said Marcy McGinnis, senior VP, news coverage, CBS News. “Individual events can make them more interested, but it is hard to judge what the interest of the public is on this type of story that has so many different aspects to it.”
If nothing else, NBC’s Mr. Capus added, the past year’s coverage has enlightened Americans about parts of the world of which they may have had little knowledge.
“People actually know where Kabul is now, and it’s not because they’re reading Foreign Affairs Quarterly,” he said.
Gulf War was `The big one’
As much coverage as terrorism has received, it pales when compared with the intensive reporting of the 1991 Gulf War, when fully 90 percent of the networks’ combined newshole was devoted to a single story. The buildup of U.S. troop strength in the Middle East kept the story top of mind for more than four months before the invasion of Kuwait in January 1991.
Despite the growth of news coverage on cable, the broadcast networks continue to draw far more viewers. Data compiled by CBS Research found that on a typical day nearly 35 million viewers watch at least one of the evening news broadcasts. The average weekly reach (unduplicated or unique viewers) of ABC “World News Tonight,” “CBS Evening News” and “NBC Nightly News” totals nearly 75 million viewers, the study found. This compares with 9.6 million viewers across five cable news networks-CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC and CNN Headline News-during the same period.