BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. A few months ago, we reviewed the coverage of foreign news post 9/11 and found that -- stop the presses! -- TV news had not changed much since then. Foreign stories are still under-covered; the networks are still cutting back their foreign bureaus; and judging by the rate of tuneout, they're still failing to make the few foreign stories they choose to cover relevant to their viewers. This week the Project for Excellence in Journalism released their study of news coverage since 9/11. Tom Rosenstiel is the project's director, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, in 1977 more than two thirds of evening news topics were hard news, and then in '77 [sic] that dropped to about 41 percent -- that was part of continuing trend. And then 9/11 happened, and hard news soared to 80 percent. So how long did that last?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, it lasted through the fall, and when we studied what had happened this year we found a big dropoff. By January we were back to numbers that were pretty close to what the network news looked like last June, before September 11th. That got even truer in February. And interestingly, morning news seems to have been transformed by the War on Terrorism more than evening news, whereas they had virtually abandoned covering traditional news, hard news topics by last summer -- now 20 percent of what you would see on a morning news program would be considered traditional hard news, and indeed the viewership numbers for morning news have held up better than the viewership numbers for evening news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does your report really make the definitive case that an audience will stay around and grow for hard news?
TOM ROSENSTIEL:No, and we're not trying to. We don't argue in the study that, that more people are watching cause the news is harder. What we argue with is that the news got softer cause that's what people wanted. We don't see any evidence of that since network news viewership has dropped by half in the last decade, as the news got lighter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you summarize the more surprising conclusions in your report?
TOM ROSENSTIEL:I think one of the most surprising conclusions is this idea that formula is driving what we see in network television rather than the news itself, and that what we are getting is in a sense not driven by the marketplace of demand but by the cost structure that is allowed in network news and in networks in general.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so the audience really isn't king any more -- or so your findings suggest.
TOM ROSENSTIEL:No. I think that's true. Companies are dictated by who are the institutional investors that buy media companies and how many properties do they want to own and-- the viewer is absent from many of the equations that news executives are making today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't media companies derive most of their profits from advertisers who in turn invest according to how big the audience is?
TOM ROSENSTIEL:Yeah, they do, and you're operating in a universe that is very different than 20 years ago. There is no way that you can have the same size audience in a 500 channel universe that you had in a 5 channel universe. And it doesn't really matter what product you put on the air -- how good it is -- if people have that many more choices, and there's that much more narrow casting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about the influence of 9/11 on all of this?
TOM ROSENSTIEL:News consumption is up. And the attitude of the public towards journalists is up. For the first time in 15 years, people have a higher opinion of journalists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you remember all those speeches that a lot of network news execs were making after 9/11 about how they needed to keep the public better informed about what was going on in the world?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: I, I think they believed that, and I think that those speeches were aimed at their corporate betters more than they were to the public -- that these were pleas for resources and time and-- and patience on behalf of the companies to let them do the news again the way that they want to. I mean after all, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings were forged in an environment that produced a very different kind of network news, and that's a model they're much more comfortable with than the one that they are overseeing today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Rosenstiel, thank you very much.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Bye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Rosenstiel is the director of The Project for Excellence in Journalism.