The threat of terrorism, a real estate recession, and man-made disasters all emerged as major stories in the American news media in the third quarter of 2007, according to a new study of press coverage.

While the media continued to pay the most attention to the war in Iraq and the presidential campaign, in the third quarter they also trained more scrutiny on three new threats to the nation’s well being—a reconstituted Al Qaeda, the implosion of the sub-prime mortgage market, and crumbling infrastructure, a close look at the third quarter of media coverage by the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds.

Of the three threats, terrorism generated the most attention. It emerged as the quarter’s fourth-biggest story, after the war debate, the presidential campaign, and coverage inside Iraq. Based partly on events (strange devices confiscated at airports) and partly on perception (Homeland Security boss Michael Chertoff’s “gut feeling” about an attack), coverage of U.S. terror concerns nearly tripled from the second to the third quarter.

Coverage of the troubled U.S. economy also came close to tripling from the second quarter to the third. The chief catalysts here were the housing and mortgage crises, and the related “credit crunch.”

And among various disasters that generated substantial coverage in the third quarter, the most prominent was the Aug. 1 collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis. The accident that claimed 13 lives was the fifth-biggest story of the summer, and seemed to resurrect nagging doubts about U.S. infrastructure initially raised by Hurricane Katrina.

The war still hovered, but in a new way. The debate over U.S. policy in Iraq—the dominant story early in the year—generated only modest coverage for many weeks of the quarter. But saturation coverage surrounding General David Petraeus’ status report to Congress in September was enough to still make it the No. 1 story in the news outlets covered in PEJ’s index of news media. That pushed the race for president, the No. 1 story in the previous three months, to No. 2, even though the level of reporting remained the same.

These are some of the findings drawn from the third quarterly report of the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index (NCI), a content analysis of a broad cross-section of American news media.

One new feature of PEJ’s third quarterly report of the year is the designation of “leading newsmakers,” individuals or events who were the dominant subjects in the highest percentage of stories.

Befitting a three-month period in which much of the news was gloomy, the roster of top five newsmakers included three criminal defendants—Idaho Senator Larry Craig, arrested for allegedly propositioning a police officer in a restroom; Michael Vick, the former Atlanta quarterback charged in connection with a dog fighting ring; and O.J. Simpson, accused of kidnapping and other offenses in a hotel room showdown over sports memorabilia.

Going further down the list, one of the leading newsmakers was a U.S. global adversary—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Among other key findings in the third quarterly report of the PEJ’s News Coverage Index:

  • There was somewhat less coverage of events on the ground in Iraq in the third quarter. Coverage of the topic filled 5% of the newshole as measured in the Index, down from 7% in both the second quarter and the first. That was still enough to make it the third biggest story of the quarter.
  • Combined, the three threads of the Iraq story—the policy debate, events inside Iraq, and the homefront—inched up to 16% in the third quarter from 15% in the second quarter. That is still well behind the first quarter total of 22%.
  • Coverage of the 2008 Presidential campaign equaled its level in the second quarter at 9% of the newshole (up from the 7% of the newshole it filled in the first quarter). That highlights just how early the full-blown coverage of the race for the White House had kicked into high gear.
  • After a second quarter in which coverage was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the Democrats once again dominated in the period from July through September. Fully 50% of campaign stories focused on Democrats, while 31% were about Republicans. (The rest concerned both parties or other matters.) Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton generated the most attention, (she was lead newsmaker in 16% of the election stories,) with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Fred Thompson next, but well behind at 8%.
  • One big story earlier in the year, immigration, fell back as an issue in the news again in the third quarter. After filling 6% of the overall newshole in the second quarter, coverage of immigration fell to make up only 2%, the same level as in the first three months of the year. Once the immigration reform bill was defeated in late June, many talk show hosts who had joined the crusade against it moved on—with the exception of CNN’s Lou Dobbs. On conservative talk radio, the subject plummeted from 16% of the newshole down to just 4%.
  • And the three cable news networks displayed noticeably different news judgment from each other in the third quarter, a trend we have seen throughout the year. MSNBC continued its heavy investment in the 2008 campaign and Iraq policy debate. Those two stories accounted for 37% of all of the outlet’s coverage. (The same two stories accounted for 19% of the Fox News Channel’s airtime and 18% of CNN’s coverage.) For the third straight quarter, Fox devoted less of its newshole to the three Iraq war storylines than either CNN or MSNBC.

The third quarter report of PEJ’s News Coverage Index is based on the Project’s weekly NCI, which examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media and allows a snapshot of the media agenda—what topics the media are choosing to highlight and which they are not.

The quarterly report considers 13 weeks of data together, almost 18,000 stories, allowing for deeper analysis across time, including comparisons of different news organizations and, in the case of television, even different programs on the same network.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is non-partisan and non-political, is one of eight projects that make up the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., a “fact tank” funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.