The Cutline

Debt debate dominates news coverage

Joe Pompeo
The Cutline

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The Senate's vote on Tuesday to raise the U.S. debt ceiling brought to a close not only weeks of national anxiety about a federal loan default, but a fast-moving story that has dominated much of the media dialogue.

Indeed, between July 25-31, 52 percent of the weekly American newshole was devoted to the economy, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Almost all of the saturating economic coverage, PEJ's research shows, focused on the congressional debate over spending cuts and tax increases as Republican and Democratic lawmakers jostled over how to avoid a dangerous credit default.

The only other week with more economic news in the past four and a half years that PEW has been tracking reporting trends was that of March 16-22, 2009, when it was revealed that AIG bigwigs had received hefty bonuses despite a government bailout that saved the company in the wake of the financial crisis.

"The burst of media attention punctuated a six-week period during which the economy has utterly dominated the news agenda," writes PEJ's Mark Jurkowitz, noting that News Corp's phone-hacking scandal was the no. 2 story during that same month and a half (although it didn't rank among the top stories in last week's accounting).

"Coverage of economic issues spike dramatically when there is a deadline-driven showdown occurring against a backdrop of partisan warfare," Jurkowitz continues. "The economy was pervasive in every media sector. ... Several different but related subplots emerged. At the outset, the media narrative focused on the hardening battle lines between Democrats and Republicans. ... As deadlock appeared to deepen, some coverage began homing in on public anger."

Last week's second-biggest story, the deadly July 22 bombings and shootings in Norway, made up only 8 percent of the news hole. Next in line were the Mexican drug war, Afghanistan and the NFL negotiations, each of which clocked in at 2 percent.

Conspicuously absent from PEJ's rankings has been the famine in Somalia. The widening humanitarian crisis has only just begun to pick up steam in the press, not least of which the front page of today's New York Times, which featured a prominently placed photograph of a skin-and-bones African child.

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