Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile was big news for surfers checking the MSNBC Web site on Oct. 18. Aside from a lengthy AP story that described her hopes for launching a “remarkable political comeback,” the online treatment included such interactive components as a primer on the “challenges facing President Gen. Pervez Musharraf” and analyst Richard Haass’ view of the unstable situation inside a country with an uneasy alliance with the U.S.

The next day, after Bhutto’s homecoming was punctuated by bomb attacks that killed approximately 140 people, AOL News highlighted an AP story speculating on possible perpetrators. While a security official suspected someone the story identified as “an al-Qaida-linked, pro-Taliban warlord based near the Afghan border,” Bhutto’s husband pointed the finger at someone different, at “elements sitting within the government.”

The dramatic and bloody events in Pakistan constituted the second-biggest story last week as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for Oct. 14-19, filling 6% of the newshole. Yet the subject was a much bigger story in one of the five media sectors examined by the Index each week. In the online outlets, the events in Pakistan filled 12% of the newshole and were the top web story by a 2-1 margin over the 2008 presidential race (6%).

Given the patterns we have seen since the Index was launched in January, those numbers are not surprising. In some media sectors, differing coverage priorities have emerged, and none has been clearer than the online news outlets’ tendency to provide the broadest range of international news. Thus far in 2007, four international conflicts—the war in Iraq, tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the fighting in Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian standoff—have been among the top-seven online stories—far broader than in any other media.

Last week, aside from Pakistan, two other geopolitical events/crises made the online sector’s top-10 story list—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Iran (the first by a Russian leader in 64 years) was the fourth-biggest story, filling 6% of the newshole of top stories among the sites examined. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s accelerated efforts to facilitate a new round of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians was seventh, at 4%

By way of comparison, in the overall Index last week, Putin’s Iran visit (2%) and Rice’s Mideast diplomacy (1%) finished outside of the top-10 story list.

The leading overall story last week was the 2008 presidential campaign (at 11%). After Pakistan, the third-biggest story was the Iraq policy debate (5%), followed by events on the ground in Iraq (4%) and the debate over immigration policy (3%).

PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines 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.)

Another breaking news story that emerged last week also attracted more attention in one particular media sector. The scary news about MRSA, a drug-resistant Staph infection was driven by several major developments. One was a study in the Oct. 17 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimating that the spreading bug was doing more damage than expected—infecting about 94,000 Americans and killing about 18,000 of those a year. The other was the news that a Virginia high school student had died of MRSA on Oct. 15, temporarily shutting all school facilities in that county.

The MRSA “superbug” was the ninth-biggest story overall (3%), but it got the most coverage on network news. There it was the fifth story at 4%. (It failed to even make the top-10 story list in cable, online, and radio.)

The health scare led the Oct. 16 NBC nightly newscast, with anchor Brian Williams, warning of “a scary, indiscriminate and silent killer,” before turning the story over to the network’s chief science correspondent Robert Bazell.

The next morning, CBS “Early Show” correspondent Nancy Cordes was standing in front of the deceased Virginia teen’s school—Staunton River High—to deliver a report that warned of research suggesting that MRSA “may eventually become more deadly than AIDS.”

There are several reasons why network newscasts may have been inclined to give this story more coverage, including that sense that its content is applicable to both the authoritative half-hour nightly newscasts and the more lifestyle-oriented morning shows. At the same time, health and science have long been valued beats at the networks as epitomized by NBC’s Bazell, a 30-year network veteran who began covering the AIDS epidemic a quarter century ago, has written a book on a breast cancer treatment and has received numerous honors for his expertise.

If the staph infection story seemed to come out of nowhere last week, that’s not the case with the 2008 presidential campaign, the second-biggest story of the entire year, according to the News Coverage Index.

Last week marked the third-consecutive week in which the race for the White House was the top story, and it was No. 1 in three sectors, radio (9%), newspapers (14%) and cable (16%).

It’s also no coincidence that cable news devoted a larger portion of its total coverage to the campaign last week than any other sector. While daytime cable coverage is often given over to breaking news events, the prime-time talk shows often devote more time than many other media outlets to arguing about whatever the candidates happen to be arguing about. Overall, indeed, the 2008 campaign has generated more coverage on cable (12% of the newshole) than in any other sector in 2007. On the Oct. 17 edition of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews zeroed in on Democrat Barack Obama’s increasingly aggressive attacks on Clinton’s views on Iraq—and cheered the battle.

Obama focused on “the difference between Hillary and himself,” Matthews summarized. “She wants to refine the Bush policy in Iraq. He wants to reject it outright. She says Bush didn’t do it right. He says he didn’t do the right thing. Finally, the debate we’ve been hoping [for] and deserving as a country, the debate over the war.”

Two days earlier, on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes,” the discussion was about Arizona Senator John McCain’s questioning of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s conservative bona fides. The two guest commentators put their own partisan spin on things.

Former GOP Senator Rick Santorum allowed that some of Romney’s views had evolved, but was quick to point out that unlike Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton, there has been no “flip flopping on the fly” on the Republican side. Democratic strategist Rich Masters responded by asserting that “there’s no question, whatsoever, that Mitt Romney’s positions are night and day.”

It is a tried and true cable talk equation of candidate vs. candidate + pundit vs. pundit. And there are 12 more months of this campaign to go.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to a technical error, the web site from Monday, October 15, was not included in this week's sample.