November 20, 2013

Obamacare v. Philippines typhoon: How cable covered two big stories

In a week dominated by two mega-stories—the continuing travails of Obamacare and the devastating typhoon in the Philippines—America’s hypercompetitive cable news outlets exercised very different news judgments.

large (1)The health insurance saga took a dramatic turn when President Obama announced a change in the law to prevent individuals from having coverage cancelled. And frantic relief efforts continued in the Philippines, where the official death toll from Typhoon Haiyan reached the 4,000 mark as of Wednesday.

A clear pattern in how four major cable news networks handled the competing stories emerged from a Pew Research Center analysis of 80 hours of programming from Nov. 11-15. The analysis studied one hour of midday and three hours of prime-time each day.

The two channels with strong ideological identities in prime-time—liberal MSBNC and conservative Fox News—spent far more time on the politically-charged health insurance story than the overseas disaster. And the two organizations that built a brand on global reporting—CNN and Al Jazeera America, an offshoot of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera media network—spent considerably more time on the tragedy in the Philippines.

The differences in the amount of coverage of each story on Fox News and MSNBC were striking. In the sample studied, MSNBC devoted three hours and eight minutes to the issues surrounding Obamacare, about four times as much as the Philippines typhoon garnered (41 minutes). On Fox, the differences were even greater. 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 three-and-a-half hours on Obamacare and just under five hours on the typhoon. The fledgling Al Jazeera America network devoted three hours and 10 minutes to the typhoon, more than twice as much airtime as health insurance 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% of Americans said they were following the health care rollout story very closely compared with 32% 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 that coverage seems somewhat in contrast to the results of our earlier study that found the channel’s coverage of a crucial week of the Syrian crisis tended to have a domestic focus, devoting the biggest chunk of its coverage to the debate in the U.S. over whether it should become 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%) when it came to commentary and opinion versus reporting or fact-based statements. That compared with 72% opinion on CNN, 86% on MSNBC and 97% on the Fox News Channel.

While those numbers suggest that Al Jazeera America may be trying to distinguish itself editorially from its competitors, the audience data indicate that at this point, not many people are watching.

You can find the methodology for this analysis here.

Topics: News Media Sectors, News Content Analysis, Television

  1. Photo of Mark Jurkowitz

    is Associate Director at the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.

  2. Photo of Paul Hitlin

    is a senior researcher focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.

  3. Photo of Nancy Vogt

    is a research analyst focusing on journalism research at Pew Research Center.

  4. Photo of Monica Anderson

    is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.


  1. News monkey4 years ago

    News value is subjective.

    Different outlets serve different audiences and different audiences have different needs and different desires to know about different facts. First rule of all communication: know your audience.

    Across the spectrum, TV news gets too much credit in general and specifically from PEW, for differentiating news from commentary. Aside from the top of the hour reports, most of what they all air is some well-groomed and attractive person long on academics and short on real world experience trying to provoke hot flashes of commentary out of people who may or may not have a connection to the story.

    Events and governmental actions that affect people are news. Talking about events and the government is commentary, whether it’s done by the senior discount coffee crowd hanging out at McDonald’s between breakfast and lunch or by a bunch of second tier clothing models whose shirts are stuffed with academic degrees and certificates.

  2. James A. Thomas ll4 years ago

    Yes, our News reporting is biased.we all know it is. America, has problems at home ! W3 have overspent in too many areas to count. So what do we do in a Typhoon? We sand food and aid. Which is the right thing to do. But are we the only country that can help ? There is only so much we can do here at home. As you know we have our own problems !
    We have a lame duck president and our congress ? Well much could be done about them also.
    Till both parties agree we have problems that are in dire need of repair, all we are doing is spinning our wheels

  3. Tony4 years ago

    Since when did Al-Jazeera, the Muslim mouthpiece, become mainstream news???

    1. HK4 years ago

      Indeed, They are just trying to ingratiate themselves because they are a muslim propaganda arm and everyone knows it.

    2. YS4 years ago

      Al-Jazeera, has actually globally established themselves as a less biased news outlet in comparison to their competitors. So this statement is both ignorant and factually unfounded.

  4. bobfo4 years ago

    Give Americans a year or two and they’ll know about Al Jazeera and the rebirth of a quaint old idea called “objective news reporting.” Maybe the process would go faster if they would change the name…maybe “AJN” or “Fax News”…

  5. Vicki4 years ago

    So, since I don’t watch Al Jazzera, it is a news channel only? As opposed to Fox News which has news but more commentary programs (analysis) and would this account for the difference in time alloted? We can analyze things for hours, but straight news only takes so much time (unless you are getting commentaries from folks who are in the tragedy from the typhoon). There is a difference between NEWS stories and analysis of the news or current events.

    1. Brad4 years ago

      You are giving Fox (and MSNBC) too much credit. NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT of Fox “News” was found to be OPINION and NOT factual-based information. Don’t you see a problem with this? A channel that has NEWS in the title and touts itself as “Fair and Balanced”? Fox is a propaganda machine and I’m glad sensible studies are actually pointing this out. Now if all the sheeple watching would just take note.

      1. Dakotah4 years ago

        That wasn’t the question he was asking

  6. Ron4 years ago

    I think Fox News is more centered on the problems here that effect all Americans than problems that do not effect us. I would like a news outlet that focused on national news with out an agenda than what we have now. I do not like going to the internet to sift through foreign news to find out what is really happening here.

    1. Brad4 years ago

      You do realize that the same study found Fox News to be “reporting” 97% opinion, rather than actual facts. right? The only thing Fox is focused on is propaganda.

  7. Pat4 years ago

    Not to excuse their coverage — or lack of — but Fox News simply doesn’t have the same resources as CNN or the major networks when it comes to covering world events. Fox barely has enough resources to cover the United States adequately.

    Fox reporters routinely do voice over packages in New York, Washington and Los Angeles of events that happened hundreds or thousands of miles away — often using stale information — or video shot the day before by affiliates or simply grabbed off Youtube. Even when Fox sends a reporter to a breaking story overseas, they’ll often spend most of the day “covering” the story from their hotel room.

    So its not surprising the Typhoon got so little coverage on Fox. And you know they were going to pull out all the stops on Obamacare’s problems.

    1. Jonathan4 years ago

      That’s crap. Fox has such a huge market share in this country and is a multi-billion dollar company. It was once part of the Murdock News Corp. empire and is not part of one of the two successors. They have all the resources they could possibly want. There is no excuse for the garbage they call “news.” That being said, CNN isn’t much better. Their stories are mostly fluff pieces with no substance. MSNBC is just the station made to appease the liberal sit-at-home audience. But for Fox to call their news fair and balanced is criminal and for anyone to think they don’t have the resources or ability to do real news is just ignorant.

      1. Jonathan4 years ago

        I meant “now” instead of “not”. Pardon my typo

  8. Tim Hearty4 years ago

    I think there is a marked difference in the way each outlet provides coverage of the ACA rollout. You may call it opinion but the MSNBC reporting I observed was focused on questioning the integrity of anyone reporting problems, errors, failures and cancellations.
    I didn’t think their coverage amounted to news reporting – it looked like the stories were created to diminish the critics amd all criticism of the rollout.

  9. Rob4 years ago

    I wonder how much of this is due to American (mis)conceptions of Al Jazeera as opposed to some desire the audience has to hear affirmation of their thoughts or feelings.