It was late afternoon on Friday Aug.3—less than 48 hours after the I-35W Bridge had collapsed into the Mississippi River—and CNN’s “Situation Room” was in full battle mode. Captions like “Happening Now” and “Breaking News Alert” filled the screen with a sense of urgency.

At the site of the Minneapolis catastrophe, correspondent Brian Todd described a city “cut in half” as recovery workers go about their “slow” and “very treacherous” work. “Divers carry out the grim tasks of searching for bodies and sunken cars in the Mississippi River,” he reported.

Also on scene, correspondent Mary Snow relayed the story of Good Samaritan/hero Greg Bernstein, who helped tend to several severely injured victims immediately after the accident. “I could see the guy…who was crushed,” Bernstein recalled. “A truck landed on top of his car…And he was yelling, he was saying he couldn’t breathe.”

By now, three days into the event, the media was taking the narrative of the bridge collapse in several directions. The death and trauma in Minnesota were interwoven with the broader issue of U.S. infrastructure safety. Anchor Wolf Blitzer announced that as of last December, there were 760 bridges in the U.S. with a design similar to the one in Minneapolis. “Two hundred and sixty-four of them,” he intoned, “are considered structurally deficient.”

Blitzer later switched to a reporter at a television station in Tequesta, Florida. The bridge in that community has been labeled structurally deficient and a cracked center span recently had to be replaced. Since the Minnesota disaster, the reporter stated, citizens were “calling the mayor’s office…They are concerned about the safety of the Tequesta Bridge here…The mayor assures people here there’s no need to panic.”

Meanwhile, Jack Cafferty, the “Situation Room’s” designated skeptical curmudgeon, came up with the day’s email question for CNN viewers. “How confident are you if officials say that a bridge is in very little danger of collapsing?”

Over at the Fox News Channel, afternoon business anchor Neil Cavuto was also focusing on the bridge tragedy.

“I guess what hits most folks is the randomness of it all,” he observed. “A bridge, taken routinely by thousands every day, becomes a death trap for a few, on one day — just like that.” Sad funereal music accompanied a video collage of scenes of injury, damage and rescue at the bridge.

The rush-hour collapse Aug. 1 of the I-35W Bridge—which thus far has claimed five lives and left eight others missing— shoved most other news to second status last week.

According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index for July 29-Aug. 3, the bridge disaster filled 25% of the newshole of TV and radio airtime and print and online space, making by far the biggest story of the week. It was the top story in every sector of the media and was a dominant TV news story, accounting for 29% of last week’s broadcast network coverage. That was particularly true on cable, where it filled 43% of the airtime.

That level of attention made the bridge collapse the fourth-biggest event of 2007. The top story was the Virginia Tech shooting rampage, which filled 51% of the newshole for the week of April 15-20.

The second biggest story was the Iraq policy debate, which accounted for 34% of all coverage in the week of Jan 7-12 when President Bush announced his “surge” strategy. The third-biggest story was the firing of talk host Don Imus which filled 26% of the newshole in the week of April 8-13.

Yet those numbers probably undercount the intensity of the coverage, as the week only includes three days of news about the bridge collapse—Aug. 1 through Aug 3. In that more compressed time frame, the story accounted for 41% of the overall news coverage, consuming 48% of the network news airtime and 69% of the cable newshole.

No other subject came close last week. The 2008 presidential campaign was the second-biggest story at 8%, followed by the events inside Iraq (5%), the Iraq policy debate (3%) and Rupert Murdoch’s controversial $5 billion acquisition of Dow Jones, and its flagship paper, The Wall Street Journal (3%). The health scare that struck Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (3%) was the sixth story. The continued probe into beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was seventh-biggest, also at 2%.

With the probable final death toll now expected to be about dozen lives, the Minnesota disaster will not come close to matching the cost or casualty count of an event like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. Yet it seemed to strike a powerful chord with both media and the public. Part of that may well have been the images of cars tossed around like toys. Part of it may have been the sense that it could have happened to anyone anywhere—the “there but by the grace of God” sentiment uttered by Cavuto. Another factor is the fact that it may suggest a broader issue, the safety of U.S. road infrastructure. Still another element to the story was the mystery of whether lives might still be saved, always a powerful force in news.

The story may also have mined a deeper concern embedded in the national psyche—and one touched on in some of the coverage—the sense that America’s know-how, confidence, and invincibility are eroding in this era of 9/11 and Katrina. As John McQuaid wrote in a Washington Post column headlined “The Can’t Do Nation,” the U.S. “seems to have become the superpower that can’t tie its own shoelaces….Its bridges shouldn’t fall down.”

So many subtexts can turn an event into a national dialogue.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

Trouble for Thompson and Obama

As for the other news last week, the 2008 Presidential campaign was the second-biggest story in the newspaper (8%), cable (9%) and radio sectors (11%). Some of that coverage concerned the problems besetting two of the hotter candidates in the race—Senator Barack Obama on the Democratic side and former Senator Fred Thompson on the GOP side.

Thompson, the politician/actor who has not yet officially entered the race, has performed well in the polls, reflecting perhaps dissatisfaction with the existing GOP field, the power of celebrity or perhaps the perennial curiosity about greener pastures.

Yet there were already signs of a turn in the media narrative about Thompson last week. Reflecting on some recent staff turmoil and Thompson’s failure to do as well as expected in recent fundraising, NBC’s Tim Russert had some cautionary words on the Aug. 1 “Today” show.

“He has to get in this race and start actually campaigning and showing that he’s a real rough and tumble candidate,” Russert ventured, “or people are not going to take the campaign as seriously as people had thought.”

A similar shift in narrative, or at least continuing subplot of doubt, was present in the coverage of Barack Obama last week. After foreign policy pronouncements that put him squarely in the dovish camp of his party, Obama generated controversy by turning hawkish and raising the specter of sending U.S. troops to Pakistan if that nation does not get more aggressive about fighting extremists.

An Aug. 2 Washington Post story pointedly noted that Obama’s “muscular speech appeared aimed at inoculating him from criticism that he lacks the toughness to lead the country in a post-9/11 world…” It also included a series of critical reactions from his Democratic rivals, such as Senator Joseph Biden’s warning that “the last thing you want to do is telegraph to the folks in Pakistan that we are about to violate their sovereignty.”

One question is whether such jousting so early in the campaign season makes much difference with voters.

Murdoch gets the Journal

Then there was the long anticipated resolution of the ownership of the nation’s leading financial newspaper. After months of speculation and reams of commentary (much of it critical), Rupert Murdoch’s audacious $5 billion bid landed him the Wall Street Journal, one of the most prestigious daily newspapers in the country. (The story also accounted for 5% of the newspaper coverage, the most of any sector.)

The account in the Aug. 1 New York Times—which now may face more direct competition from a Murdoch-owned Journal—stated that “combined with the planned beginning of the Fox business news channel in October, the purchase of Dow Jones makes Mr. Murdoch the most formidable figure in business news coverage in this country, perhaps worldwide.”

It also quoted a reporter at the Journal who said of Murdoch’s impending ownership: “It’s sad…We held a wake. We stood around a pile of Journals and drank whiskey.”

Death of a Director

More indisputably sad was the passing of Ingmar Bergman, the 89-year-old Swedish filmmaker. His death was #9 on the Index last week, filling 2% of the newshole.

“Cinema’s brooding auteur of the psyche” read the headline on the Los Angeles Times’s front-page obit/appreciation.

Only in the newspaper sector, where it was the fourth-biggest story at 5%, did Bergman’s passing make the top-10 story roster. And it attracted virtually no coverage at all on cable. There, despite the most time of any sector to fill with news, the tendency remains a focus on fewer stories, not more.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ