January 28, 2002
News coverage immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks was based on solid sources and "just the facts," but media standards have since slipped, a journalism think tank says.
Researchers for the Project for Excellence in Journalism examined 2,496 television, magazine and newspaper stories from mid-September, mid-November and mid-December.
Every assertion in the stories was categorized as either fact, analysis that could be attributed to reporting or unattributed opinion or speculation.
The researchers analyzed stories from four newspapers -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Fresno Bee -- as well as Time and Newsweek. The survey also covered a variety of national TV programs.
"The news media reacted to the terrorist attacks of September 11 with great care about not getting ahead of the facts," the report said. Three-fourths of the coverage was strictly factual and just 25 percent was involved some level of interpretation.
By December, however, when the war in Afghanistan was well under way, the share of factual coverage overall had fallen to 63 percent -- a level "lower than those seen in the middle of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal," according to the study. Analysis, speculation and outright opinion picked up the slack.
The researchers identified a stark difference between newspaper and magazine stories and television reports : 82 percent of print accounts were factual, compared to 57 percent of what was on TV.
The study said government restrictions imposed on journalists could be a cause for the decline in factual reporting. Researchers also cited newsroom cutbacks and the competitive, 24-hour pace of journalism.
The study also concluded that coverage has heavily favored U.S. positions. About half of the relevant stories contained only viewpoints in line with American or Bush administration policy. Television news was measurably less likely than print stories to include criticism of the administration, the study found.
The report was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.