Mark Jurkowitz loved playing media pundit, a role he took up both at The Boston Globe and later at The Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly. Although pontificating on the sins of the media was fun, Mr. Jurkowitz says he wishes he'd had more of the currency most journalists trade in: facts.
"Once in a while, when you're in my business, you really want a story that says: 'Hey, guess what? Someone actually analyzed the tone of coverage about Iraq and found out this,' " he says.
Raw data is what he had in mind when he left the Phoenix in 2006 to join the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a Washington-based nonprofit specializing in journalism research. Jurkowitz now authors the organization's News Coverage Index, arguably the most extensive study of American media done in (almost) real-time.
The study, launched Tuesday, will analyze and code 40-plus outlets from five media sectors and report weekly on which stories received the most attention.
"The aim of it is to look at the news agenda of the American media – what they're choosing to cover and what they're choosing not to cover," says Amy Mitchell, PEJ's deputy director. Ms. Mitchell says the information will be valuable to both journalists and the public, who can use it to make decisions about their own media consumption. The study comes at a time of turmoil for the industry: Newspapers are cutting back on staff as circulation falls; network TV is losing viewers; online news is gaining ground, and the audience is cherry-picking all of them. ("News grazers," Mitchell calls them.)
PEJ's weekly reports will identify five top stories from the previous week across media sectors and the space devoted to them. For example, the overall top story of the first week of 2007 was the swearing-in of the new Congress, followed by Gerald Ford's funeral and news of policy proposals for the Iraq war. (See chart.)
"Our main mission is to put out the information in a way that's clear, accurate, and understandable, so that it can be used by others to make decisions about how they're covering the news, about what news to go to, about what outlets they'd like to be getting their news from," Mitchell says.
PEJ coders will analyze newspapers as diverse as The New York Times and The Bakersfield Californian, cable-TV shows ("Anderson Cooper 360," "Tucker"), TV network news, news and talk radio, and websites like Yahoo News or AOL News. (For a full list, go to csmonitor.com). In the future, the study will include news comedy like "The Daily Show" and blogs. But the study won't wag its finger at the media.
"It's media criticism not from the traditional standpoint of 'We think this is good, we think this is bad; we like this, we don't like this,' " says Jurkowitz. "[It's] more in the spirit of holding a mirror up to the media and saying: 'This is what you're doing.' "
The project, funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, employs research methodology vetted by a panel of academic advisers. "The sampling of the media, the content-coding categories, and the requirements of intercoder reliability are issues we've discussed, critiqued, and pretty much agreed on," writes Esther Thorson, associate dean at the Missouri School of Journalism, in an e-mail. Ms. Thorson says the value of this study is its grounding in social science. "[In this project] you have a system that provides what we academics never really had before: a map of what is being reported as 'top news' every week in all the main media," she says.
The study presents exciting possibilities for related research, says Stephen Lacy, a journalism professor at Michigan State University and adviser for the project. For example, does the Iraq war get too much or not enough coverage? Moreover, says Jurkowitz, the study might help answer "those great unknown questions everybody asks about journalism: 'Are the media giving the public what they want? Should they be? Are they pandering? Is there a disconnect between what the public cares about and what the media think is important?' "
Mike Jenner, executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian, says his first reaction to learning that his paper was in the study was: "Cool!" His second: "Yikes!" Mr. Jenner says readers sometimes accuse his paper of liberal bias or of being manipulated. He says this type of study is what the industry needs. "Is there a reality behind the perceptions?" Jenner says. "Answering that would be a first step."
Jurkowitz expects to see a nuanced picture of the media, and maybe even data that could clear up preconceptions. Does he worry that the study might confirm dark doubts about his profession? Jurkowitz laughs. "Nothing could show up in the data that would be worse than what our worst critics think about us anyway."
The Project for Excellence in Journalism's News Coverage Index will analyze 49 news outlets each week (35 each weekday) from five media sectors: newspapers, online, cable TV, network TV, and radio (news and talk). Here is a complete list of the outlets to be sampled, along with information on how they will be analyzed:
The New York Times (every day)
Two of these four every day:
The Washington Post
The Los Angeles Times
The Wall Street Journal
Two of these four every day:
The Boston Globe
Minneapolis Star Tribune
The Austin American-Statesman
The Albuquerque Journal
Two of these four every day:
The Bakersfield Californian
The Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press
The Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio)
The Sun Chronicle (Attleboro, Mass.)
"The Early Show" (CBS)
"Good Morning America" (ABC)
"CBS Evening News"
"NBC Nightly News"
"The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" (PBS)
"World News Tonight" (ABC)
Daytime – two of three every day (1-1:30 p.m. ET):
CNN nighttime programming – three of four every day:
"Anderson Cooper 360"
"Lou Dobbs Tonight"
"Paula Zahn Now"
"The Situation Room" (7 p.m.)
Fox News nighttime programming – three of four every day:
"Fox Report With Shepard Smith"
"Hannity & Colmes"
"Special Report With Britt Hume"
"The O'Reilly Factor"
MSNBC nighttime programming – two of four every day:
"Countdown With Keith Olbermann"
"Hardball" (7 p.m.)
"Tucker" (6 p.m.)
Headlines every day:
ABC Radio headlines at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
CBS Radio headlines at 9 a.m.a and 5 p.m.
NPR Morning Edition every day
Rush Limbaugh (every day)
One of two additional conservatives each day:
One of two liberals each day:
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism