Where They Diverged and Where they Met

In a year defined by a number of major news events, the mainstream media and the U.S. public often agreed on the most important stories.

According to data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, three of five stories that generated the most public attention in a single week were among those that also received the highest level of weekly coverage from the press. (The research was conducted as part of the group’s News Interest Index.)

The story that generated the most public interest for the year was the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The week of March 14-20, a full 55% of those surveyed said they were following events there very closely. That week news coverage of the disaster filled 57% of the newshole. The week following the death, on May 1, of Osama bin Laden, 50% of the public said they were following that story very closely; that was the biggest weekly story of the year in terms of coverage (it filled 69% of the newshole studied). In the wake of the Tucson shooting spree that killed six people and seriously wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 49% of the public was following the saga very closely; from January 10-16, the tragedy accounted for 57% of the coverage studied by PEJ.

If there was a divergence between public interest and the media interest on these major stories, however, it could be found in how long the public was interested in something versus the media.  In several cases, high levels of public interest outlasted media coverage as the press moved on to other events.

In the week of March 21-27, for example, half (50%) of the respondents were still following the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake very closely, but media coverage had plunged to 15% from 57% the week before. That was also the case with the Tucson shooting when coverage dropped to 17% (the week of January 17-23) from 57% the week before, while news interest stayed very high, with 45% saying they were still following the story very closely.

Major weather events generated substantial coverage in the media in 2011, but even then not at the levels registered by the public. Coverage of the deadly Joplin Missouri tornado filled 22% of the newshole from May 23-29, but a full 45% of the public said they were following that story very closely.  In a more dramatic divergence, the blizzards that blasted the Midwest the week of January 31-February 6 accounted for 8% of the newshole while almost half (45%) of the public were paying very close attention to them.

One other story late in the year seemed to be of considerably more interest to the public than the media. When the last U.S. troops packed up and came home, ending the nearly nine-year war in Iraq, 34% of Americans said they were following that milestone very closely. In the media from December 12-18, the story ranked behind the presidential election and the economy-filling 8% of the newshole.