The diary currently at the top of the rec list makes an emphatic point about misplaced priorities in the mainstream American news media. Its hundreds of comments are in nearly unanimous agreement. Indeed, "misplaced priorities" are endemic to the traditional press, as any remotely observant citizen has long known.
The central claim of the diary and its comments is straightforward: Charlie Sheen is receiving too much coverage relative to Wisconsin and the Middle East. However, evaluating it fairly requires separating it into two parts: the normative claim that the coverage is imbalanced, and the implicit empirical claim that Sheen is receiving a considerable amount of coverage relative to important national and international issues. Many of the comments, in fact, explicitly suggest that Sheen received more coverage than Wisconsin and/or the Middle East. The normative claim, of course, is a matter of opinion. However, its empirical underpinning can in fact be examined -- and that's the task to which I turn.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) undertakes a massive daily content analysis of more than 50 news outlets in order to keep an ongoing, real-time archive of the news media's agenda. Weekly summaries of their collection can be found on their website. It's not completely comprehensive -- they cover all of prime-time, and then sample from the daytime (more on their methods here).
Their last weekly report covers the 7 days ending Sunday. While it doesn't cover Sheen's CNN interview last night, it certainly encompasses the most intense period of the Sheen controversy. So what do they find?
From February 21-27, events in the Middle East, dominated by the precarious situation in Libya, accounted for 35% of the newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
In fact, 35% of the newshole -- meaning total number of printed words or airtime that week -- was taken up by the Middle East. It varied by outlet, of course -- more on that in a moment.
What about Wisconsin? This one's trickier:
The week’s No. 2 story was also sizable by traditional standards of the press agenda. The economy filled 24% of the newshole studied. About three-quarters of that was focused on state budget battles, currently playing out most dramatically in Wisconsin, which seemed to portend historic implications about the future of the labor union movement in America.
So, "about three-quarters" of 24% was devoted to "state budget battles," of which WI was obviously the most highly covered. Let's call it 18%.
Now how about Sheen? As it turns out, his coverage was so trivial that it did not even make the report. And no, they don't exclude celebrity news -- I recall seeing weeks in which figures like Britney Spears and Mark McGuire played prominently in the news hole. So, while we can't locate the exact percentage, it must have been less than the 3% received by the Somali pirates (the lowest-ranking story to make the list).
Perhaps cable news -- which by far bears the brunt of the criticism here -- was worse. Fortunately, the report briefly discussed the cable news hole, albeit sparsely. Still, the results were fascinating:
Middle East: 72%
Middle East: 19%
Middle East: 5%
First, my mind boggles at the differences between networks. I watch a lot of CNN, so I'm not surprised by the 72% for the Middle East. It's pretty much all they've covered in prime-time recently. But just 5% on MSNBC? Wow!
But what about Sheen? Again, he's not listed. If he were the subject of every single other story -- which is extremely unlikely -- then the media critics would have a valid point, at least for MSNBC and Fox.
To conclude (briefly, since typing with a broken finger sucks): I applaud the diarist and community for keeping a careful watch on the traditional press. One of the most important functions of the blogosphere is to amplify important stories that fail to pass through the old-guard media filter. However, the empirical evidence presented above for whether they actually are overplaying Sheen and underplaying the two big stories is, at best, mixed; and in some cases, it seems to be contradicted by the data. As I noted at the outset, one can easily look at the data and draw any number of normative conclusions. Perhaps you think that any coverage of Sheen is too much, or that Wisconsin is the single most important thing happening right now, by a considerable margin. Those are all defensible points. But it's important as well to keep the normative arguments grounded in data, to the best of our abilities.