Six stories involving criminal justice, led by the clash between then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford, were among the 10 consuming the highest number of minutes on three television networks’ nightly newscasts last year.
That was the finding of a new report from television analyst Andrew Tyndall, who has analyzed the content of the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news programs for the past 31 years.
According to Tyndall, last year’s top story in terms of minutes was the nomination of appeals court judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which netted a total of 426 minutes on the three programs. After an initial round of coverage, the volume rose markedly when Kavanaugh was accused by Christine Blasey Ford of committing sexual assault on her when both were students in the Washington, D.C., area.
Ranking second at 332 minutes was special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian election meddling probe.
After North Korea-U.S. summitry and three weather-related stories — California wildfires, winter weather generally and Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas — there were four more justice stories: migrant children in detention, the Parkland, Fl., high school shooting, school safety generally, and the prosecution of President Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen.
As Tyndall put it, “Kavanaugh & The Caravan. Those were President Donald Trump’s rallying cries during the midterm elections and the networks concurred with his agenda, even if they disagreed with his angle.”
Tyndall noted that the topic of race and immigration “had its second busiest year in our 31-year database. Yet its focus was on the scandal of children detained at the border, not Trump’s push for his wall.”
Kavanaugh, Ford ‘Most Newsworthy’ in 2018
Perhaps not surprisingly given the Supreme Court nomination’s top ranking, Tyndall declared Kavanaugh the “Most Newsworthy Man of the Year,” while the most newsworthy woman was his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
Considering only a ranking of crime stories on network TV newscasts, after Parkland, shootings and other use of force by police ranked second with 112 minutes, gun policy was third with 76 minutes, and killing of police officers, was fourth with 68 minutes.
Of the remaining six stories, five were mass shootings, including those at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a California country and western music bar, the Annapolis, Md., Capital Gazette, the Santa Fe, Tx., high school, and follow-ups to the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting.
The one other crime topic that made the top ten was the killing of pregnant Colorado woman Shanann Watts and her two young daughters, a case in which her husband has been charged..
The 1,616 minutes of nightly TV news in 2018 that Tyndall attributed to crime news marked the third year this decade that the total exceeded 1,500 minutes.
That total was notably higher than those in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 20th century, when crime was not so prominent as a public issue.
The highest total for crime in one year was 2,500 minutes reached in the early 1990s, when reported crime in the U.S. reached its modern-day peak and Congress enacted a wide-ranging anti-crime law amid considerable public debate.
The focus on the Parkland massacre echoed the results of an Associated Press survey of editors that was cited in the annual report on media coverage of criminal justice prepared for the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College by Criminal Justice Journalists.
The editors also cited the Russia probe, the #MeToo movement, school shootings generally and immigration among the top half-dozen stories. the Kavanaugh nomination came in at number seven.
There is no precise count of the volume of crime coverage in print publications and online that compares to Tyndall’s report on the three major television networks’ coverage.
Some critics contend that the news media spend disproportionately too much effort covering mass shooting deaths compared with more-routine fatal shootings.
The Gun Violence Archive reports that more than 14,000 people in the U.S. were killed by gunfire last year (not including suicides). During the year, there were 340 mass shootings, defined as incidents involving at least four people.
Additional Reading: The Ten Women Who Changed Criminal Justice in 2018
Editor’s Note: This story was prepared as part of The Crime Report’s annual review of criminal justice coverage in 2018, with the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. See: How Well Did the Media Cover Criminal Justice in 2018?
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.