The Distorted World of Network News

March 1, 1997

In the 1980s, millions of Americans who tuned into the evening newscasts of “ABC World News Tonight,” “CBS Evening News,” and “NBC Nightly News” often saw US defense policies sketched in terms of weapons that did not work as advertised, corrupt contractors, outrageously high defense budgets, and provocative arms-control positions that threatened the “stability” of the superpower nuclear standoff.

All of these points were at least highly debatable. Some were flat untrue. They were, however, continually emphasized in network news reports while other aspects of the complicated defense debate went largely ignored.

Network correspondents and producers seemed incapable of capturing the normal ups and downs of a 12- to 15-year-long weapon development process in 90 seconds of airtime but had no trouble putting together a report on a failed weapons test. Industry scandals were deemed to be more “newsworthy” than “dull” stories about corporate successes. News about defense budgets made the cut when an administration was fighting to increase it but not when Congress was slashing it.

Network news reporting of nuclear arms-control developments was similarly selective, slanting heavily toward the precepts and conclusions of Washington’s arms-control establishment. Short shrift was given to those with an opposing view–the skeptics who saw fundamental flaws in past arms-control agreements and argued that they locked the US into an inferior strategic position. These critics were dismissed as “obstructionists” or “hard-liners.”

In short, the public in the 1980s received a distorted picture of important defense policies and even some controversial foreign policies, such as the Reagan Administration’s approach toward Central America.

Dissecting National Security News

The Reagan defense buildup (which actually began toward the end of the Carter Administration) involved billions of dollars in budget increases. Certainly, no one argued that a government enterprise of such magnitude could or should have been declared off-limits to media scrutiny. However, a detailed examination of the record over the years shows that the fairness, accuracy, and objectivity of network defense reporting fell well short of minimum requirements, even by the networks’ own standards.

These are the conclusions that emerged from a lengthy analysis, conducted by the author, of evening newscasts during January­April periods in the four sample years of 1983, 1985, 1990, and 1994. Also included in the analysis was the period of the Persian Gulf War in January and February 1991. The inescapable conclusion is that network defense coverage was routinely distorted by serious problems of context and balance. By contrast, most foreign policy coverage was relatively neutral. The big exception, however, concerned the Reagan Administration’s controversial policies toward Nicaragua and El Salvador.

A breakdown of 2,947 individual news reports from sample periods in 1983, 1985, 1990, 1991, and 1994 indicate that the networks’ evening newscasts favor foreign policy news and give short shrift to such important defense topics as the budget, industry, policy, and strategy.

The analysis used full-text transcripts of individual national security news reports from each of the network’s evening newscasts. On the most basic level, reports were catalogued by anchor, beat, correspondent, length, and date. On a more subjective level, topics were assigned, a summary of overall content was annotated, and problems related to journalistic standards were identified. If no such problems were found, the report was coded as “neutral.” If any problems were identified, the report was coded as “problematic” and the problems were described.

It was important to try to impose some consistency on the subjective process of determining problems. For this purpose, the study used a set of questions based on standards outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

Topics assigned included arms control, defense budget, foreign policy, industry, military operations, personnel, policy and strategy, procurement, Soviet Union/Russia, threats, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and weapons and capabilities.

Overall, 2,947 individual news reports (or items) were included in this sample of 18 months’ worth of evening newscasts. A “news report” was defined in three ways:

  • As a segment delivered by the anchor alone (the anchor tell).
  • As a segment in which the anchor introduced one correspondent.
  • As a segment in which the anchor introduced more than one correspondent up front, followed by their back-to-back reports.

By comparing network approaches to various national security topics over time and across administrations with similar and dissimilar policies, several patterns of news coverage emerged.

Coverage by the Numbers

What did Americans see on the networks’ evening newscasts during these periods in the 1980s and early 1990s? On a day-to-day basis, foreign policy news dominated national security reporting. Along the same lines, but often with a defense component added, there was a heavy dose of reporting on the Soviet Union and, after the USSR collapsed, Russia.

Defense topics, such as the struggle over the defense budget or the weapons and capabilities the armed forces must rely on in war and peace, did not rate a lot of attention by the networks.

Figure 2 When Defense Coverage Suddenly Fades

(Number of Reports by Primary Topic and Administration)

Topic

Reagan First Term

Reagan Second Term

Bush

Clinton

Arms Control

128

56

17

0

Budget

63

29

26

0

Foreign Policy

215

173

192

359

Industry

4

31

8

6

Military Operations

72

50

37

53

Personnel

64

75

77

108

Policy/Strategy

8

2

1

0

Procurement

1

5

4

2

SDI

3

13

4

0

Soviet Union/Russia

93

108

232

30

Threats

0

10

21

32

Weapons/Capabilities

62

67

29

11

As the actual number of reports suggests, some topics disappeared from network coverage in the Clinton period that was analyzed. For example, the defense budget was treated as “news” when the Reagan Administration was seeking substantial increases but was not when the Clinton Administration was cutting it.

The range of issues covered during the two Reagan Administrations and the Bush Administration was similar, with reports on foreign policy dominating. Other areas that received attention included the Soviet Union, arms control, personnel-related issues, military operations, the defense budget, and weapons and capabilities.

During the Clinton Administration sample, foreign policy coverage dominated-almost to the exclusion of other areas of national security. In fact, no primary coverage of the defense budget, arms control, or policy and strategy occurred, and very little coverage of weapons and capabilities took place during the period sampled from the Clinton Administration.

Many changes in the patterns of coverage can, of course, be explained by external events. The highly charged Soviet-American arms-control negotiations in the Reagan years gave way to a more cooperative relationship with Russia in the latter Bush years and in the Clinton years. On the other hand, such topics as the defense budget and weapons development have a continuity about them. Why the networks chose to cover or ignore them revealed something about how the networks approached particular topics.

It was also important to determine the quality, and not just the quantity, of coverage related to each topic. Because the content of each news report was judged in qualitative terms and coded by topics, it was possible to evaluate each topic as a discrete “set” of news reports. Each set could also be viewed over select periods of time and be analyzed in a number of ways, from beat and correspondent to an individual network.

“Problematic” news reports fell into six broad areas:

  • General lack of balance or context.
  • Lack of context as a result of brevity.
  • Lack of knowledge on the part of the correspondent.
  • Overemphasis on drama or bad news at the expense of substance and context.
  • “Loaded” labeling or advocacy.
  • Bad news judgment.

Overall, the analysis of national security reporting in the 1980s and early 1990s yielded good news and bad news. The good news: Network national security reporting was fairly informative, balanced, and in context about 70 percent of the time. Out of the 2,947 network news reports analyzed, only 886, or 30 percent, had basic problems related to journalistic standards.

The bad news is that, outside of general foreign policy coverage, in a number of key national security areas-ranging from arms control to the defense budget to developments related to defense industry and weapons-problems related to journalistic standards cropped up anywhere from 37 to 100 percent of the time.

To the extent coverage was inadequate or distorted, the reasons were fairly obvious:

The networks often allowed the attitudes of producers, correspondents, and anchors to surface in reports, creating problems in the areas of balance and context. When such attitudes were spotted, they were most often anti­defense spending, pro­arms control, negative toward new weapons technology, and anti-industry.

Figure 3 Defense Attracts the Networks’ Weakest Reporting

(Problematic Reporting by Primary Topic and Administration)

Topic

Reagan First Term

Reagan Second Term

Bush

Clinton

Arms Control

46.8%

37.5%

41.1%

n/a

Budget

71.4%

75.8%

80.7%

n/a

Foreign Policy

35.8%

47.9%

23.4%

11.4%

Industry

75.0%

100%

100%

66.6%

Military Operations

15.2%

50%

24.3%

43.4%

Personnel

24.2%

26.6%

38.9%

42.5%

Policy/Strategy

100%

50%

0%

n/a

Procurement

100%

61.5%

50%

100%

SDI

100%

61.5%

50%

n/a

Soviet Union/Russia

15%

25.9%

7.7%

13.3%

Threats

n/a

0%

4.7%

18.7%

Weapons/Capabilities

51.6%

47.7%

75.8%

72.7%

The percent of problematic reporting was most pronounced in key areas of defense coverage. These included arms control, the defense budget, industry, procurement, and weapons/capabilities.

Decisions taken in the area of news selection and presentation often reflected these prevalent points of view. The large number of anchor-only reports devoted to national security coverage (29 percent of all national security coverage) often made it difficult, if not impossible, to present context when reporting on highly complex and often controversial areas of national security. Beat correspondents and producers with the most expertise in national security-at the Pentagon, the State Department, and on foreign beats-tended to report on national security less frequently as a group (46.2 percent of the time) than did White House correspondents, anchors, general-assignment reporters, and other Washington beat correspondents (53.6 percent of the time).

Hostility and Skepticism

That certain attitudes reflecting hostility or skepticism toward higher defense spending (and associated policies) were present in the 1980s is not terribly surprising. Americans have a long tradition of resistance to high military expenditures and to reliance on a professional military. The real problem of network defense coverage has less to do with American preferences than with lapses in journalistic standards.

From all indications, only certain aspects of important national security issues were covered adequately during the periods analyzed. In fact, a number of significant arguments and viewpoints were either downplayed, dismissed, or ignored entirely.

The main messages conveyed to the public during the 1980s-and, to some extent, in the early 1990s-tended to reinforce only certain sides of key defense issues. The conventional wisdom of network anchors, producers, and correspondents was also evident in the heavy reliance on certain sources, especially more-liberal Democrats and members of the arms-control establishment, who tended to have strong faith in the efficacy of negotiations as a means of strengthening US security. The unifying bond among these groups was opposition to the Reagan-Weinberger defense buildup and their “hard-line” approach to arms control.

With regard to the defense budget, the liberal view in Congress was that too much money was being directed at the armed forces at a time when tax and spending cuts threatened to cause the unraveling of social programs. Moreover, some conservative Republicans in Congress, concerned about the deficit, also were looking for a way to reduce defense expenditures. The networks covered both of these critical groups but most often echoed the liberal view.

New weapon purchases ran into trouble with both liberal Democrats and the conservative deficit hawks because they diverted resources from already squeezed social programs, in the one case, and deficit reduction in the other. Again, the first view was a regular refrain on the networks.

The arms-control establishment’s view was that negotiation, rather than confrontation, was the best way to deal with the Soviet Union. Superpower relations, moreover, could be “managed” by skillful use of inducements. That, too, came across loud and clear on the networks.

Because SDI threatened this precept, it, too, was seen by the arms-control establishment as “destabilizing,” technically infeasible, and too costly-points routinely favored in network reports.

Depicted at left is the percentage of problematic coverage by beat. As might be expected, the Pentagon, State Department, and foreign correspondents are far more reliable in their coverage of national security topics tha nwere the anchors, White House correspondents, and other general-assignment reporters.

Industry coverage was the most distorted, thanks to the practice by anchors of spooning out tidbits of news about scandal and corruption, which accounted for less than one percent of the day-to-day business that American industry conducted with the Defense Department. Overall, defense industry coverage presented a grotesque caricature of an industry that has consistently produced the most technologically advanced weapon systems in the world. Again, the liberal view tended to ascribe greed and corruption to business at large.

Most revealing of the networks’ ideological mindset was coverage of Central America. Here the liberal-conservative lines stood out starkly. In the case of El Salvador, the liberal view was that the government was right-wing and murderous, while the left-wing guerrillas were noble and fighting for a good cause. Just the opposite was true of conservatives. They believed that the US could influence the Salvadoran government to move toward democracy and economic reform while the guerrillas threatened to destroy the democratic transformation.

Nicaragua was the mirror image. Conservatives viewed the Sandinista regime as repressive and Marxist, even Stalinist, and liberals thought the Sandinistas should be left alone to find their own path. The anti-Sandinista contras, on the other hand, were viewed as right-wing villains by liberals and “freedom fighters” by conservatives.

In both cases, the networks tilted toward the liberal view.

Out of Touch

In a 1986 book, The Media Elite, Robert S. Lichter and his colleagues noted that journalists as a group tend to be more liberal than the public at large, and they tend to favor liberal sources-people who think as they do and people with whom they associate.

In Washington, D. C., that tendency is even stronger. A 1996 survey conducted by The Freedom Forum and the Roper Center found that 91 percent of 139 Washington reporters in the sample described themselves as “liberal” or “moderate.”

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution conducted similar surveys in the late 1970s. He found that 51 percent of Washington reporters saw a bias in the Washington news corps. Of that 51 percent, 96 percent characterized the bias as liberal. Mr. Lichter pointed out that, over the years, journalists have described themselves as liberal between 42 to 55 percent of the time and conservative between 17 and 21 percent of the time.

It also appears that national reporters have lost touch with working class society. According to a 1992 report by David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, journalists who work at the networks and the major newspapers are better educated than the average citizen and are better paid, factors that regularly produce charges of elitism.

Television generalists, such as anchors, White House correspondents, and general-assignment reporters, are responsible for the majority of the problematic reports. The only exception to this rule concerns reporting on “threats,” where generalists appear to have done a better job than the specialists.

Another aspect of the attitude of the media in the early 1980s reflected lingering memories of the Vietnam War. While New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith was portraying the public’s choice of Ronald Reagan in 1980 as the first step in overcoming what was dubbed the “Vietnam syndrome,” network correspondents and producers appeared to be preoccupied by Vietnam. Regular references to Vietnam in coverage of Central America were just one manifestation of the networks’ continuing obsession with the war in Southeast Asia.

Network views on defense spending were also out of touch with prevailing public attitudes of the early 1980s. In reality, the Reagan defense buildup resulted from a public consensus in favor of increased defense spending, a consensus that began to emerge toward the end of the Carter Administration but that seldom got mentioned or explored in network newscasts. To the contrary, Reagan’s buildup, coupled with his Administration’s early involvement in El Salvador, did not sit well in the House of Representatives, which had a strong liberal wing, or with the media, who had their own strong liberal inclinations.

What About the Next Time

The analysis suggested seven steps that the networks can take now if the news divisions wish to have a better batting average in the politically charged areas of defense and foreign policy.

Rely more on specialists when reporting on national security, whether the story emerges on Capitol Hill, from the defense industry, or from the federal bureaucracy. This seems so obvious that it is scary it has not been standard practice. [See Figure 4, and Figure 5.]

Minimize–perhaps even eliminate–the currently large role of the White House beat reporter in defense coverage.

Give special care to preparing the short anchor-tell spots–using more input from specialized beat reporters–because such spots are fraught with dangers of distortion, oversimplification, lack of context, and outright bias.

Keep generalists away from the longer, investigative pieces on national security topics or, at a minimum, make them work with or for Pentagon or State Department correspondents and producers.

Turn more frequently to the underutilized State Department correspondents and producers, instead of going to the White House, for areas of foreign policy and arms control.

Maintain a healthy network of foreign bureaus to help develop expertise in foreign affairs.

Resist the temptation to fly in poorly informed anchors to cover major international stories that could be better covered by foreign correspondents on the spot.

National security–and defense in particular–consumes an extraordinary amount of the nation’s resources. In the 1980s and 1990s, the network newscasts did little to help inform the American public about how these resources were managed or what the nation received in return for trillions of dollars.

No wonder network correspondents and their viewers were surprised in the first days of the Gulf War. The US military went into action with “overpriced,” “overly complex,” high-tech weapons built by a “corrupt” industry and an “incompetent” Pentagon bureaucracy, and they worked brilliantly.

Stephen P. Aubin is the director of Communications for the Air Force Association. This article is based on research conducted while completing a Ph.D. in National Security Studies and Communications at Boston University.