Obamacare v. Typhoon: How Cable Covered Two Big Stories

Different networks gave different amounts of coverage to these topics.

During the height of two big news stories, one domestic and the other international, an analysis by the Pew Research Center quantified the vast differences in coverage and, by extension, judgment by America’s hypercompetitive cable news outlets.

The struggles of the Obamacare launch and the overwhelming destruction caused by the typhoon in the Philippines received markedly different amounts of airtime, depending on which cable news network you watch.

The saga of the Affordable Care Act took a dramatic turn after President Obama announced a change in the law to correct an unintended consequence: the immediate cancellation of policies by providers to individual policyholders. During the frenetic scramble to broadcast and parse the implications of the 11th-hour adjustment, the largest typhoon ever recorded plowed directly into the Philippines, causing
billions of dollars in damage and killing thousands.

During the competing stories, researchers identified a clear pattern in how four different cable news networks handled the competing stories. The 80-hour sample of programming, conducted Nov. 11-15, studied one hour of midday and three hours of primetime coverage each day.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two channels with unabashedly ideological leanings during primetime — liberal MSBNC and conservative Fox News — spent considerably more time on the politically charged health insurance story than the overseas disaster.

The two organizations that have built their brands on global reporting networks — CNN and Al Jazeera America, an offshoot of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera media network — spent substantially more time on the catastrophe in the Philippines.

The disparities in coverage of each story on Fox News and MSNBC were, as the report’s authors said, “striking.”

In the sample studied, MSNBC devoted 3 hours and 8 minutes to the issues surrounding Obamacare, about four times as much as the Philippines typhoon garnered (41 minutes).

On Fox, the differences were even more pronounced. In the sample studied, the channel devoted almost eight hours to the health care drama and six minutes to the aftermath of the typhoon. That translates into nearly 80 times more coverage of the health insurance story than the typhoon.

CNN had the closest balance between the two stories, spending slightly more than 3-1/2 hours on Obamacare and slightly less than 5 hours on the typhoon. The fledgling Al Jazeera America network devoted 100 minutes to the typhoon, more than twice as much airtime as the health insurance story commanded (one-and-a-half hours).

(When it came to the news interests of the U.S. public, a Pew Research survey conducted Nov. 14-17 found that 37 percent of Americans said they were following the health care rollout story very closely compared with 32 percent who were following news about the Philippines disaster very closely.)
For those trying to read the tea leaves on Al Jazeera America’s editorial vision, the international focus of its coverage seems somewhat in contrast to the results of Pew’s earlier study: It found the channel’s coverage of a crucial week in the Syrian crisis tended to have a domestic focus, devoting the biggest chunk of its coverage to the U.S. debate over becoming militarily involved in Syria’s civil war.

Al Jazeera America stood out in another way last week. In the sample studied, it offered by far the least amount of opinion (41 percent) when it came to commentary and opinion versus reporting or fact-based statements, according to the Pew report. That compared with 72 percent opinion on CNN, 86 percent on MSNBC and a blinding 97 percent on the Fox News Channel.

Researchers postulated that Al Jazeera America might be trying to distinguish itself editorially from its competitors; however, the audience data indicates that, at this point, not many people are watching. mt 

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