Summary of Findings

The 9/11 terrorist attacks drew more public interest than any other story in the past decade. In October 2001, a month after the attacks, 78% said they were following news about the story very closely, up slightly from the week after the attacks (74%).

The devastating hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 – first Katrina and then Rita – also captured the attention of an overwhelming numbers Americans. In October of that year, a month after Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, 74% said they were following news about the storms very closely (70% were following very closely the week after Katrina hit).

The 2005 hurricanes sent the price of gas soaring, a development that also drew broad public attention. In September 2005, 70% said they were following news about high gas prices very closely. In general, the public is highly attentive to fluctuations in gas prices. Nearly as many said they were closely following rising gas prices in May 2006 (69%) and June 2008 (66%), and when prices fell in October 2008, 53% followed very closely.

Aside from Hurricane Katrina, several other natural disasters over the past ten years riveted the American public’s attention. In particular, roughly six-in-ten very closely followed both the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 tsunami that struck coastal areas surrounding the Indian Ocean.

During this decade there were several mass shootings, but the ongoing shooting spree that for weeks terrorized the Washington, D.C.-area attracted the most public interest. In October 2002, 65% said they were following news about the sniper attacks very closely. The sniper shootings were the public’s top story in 2002.

A number of the decade’s top stories occurred during a tumultuous two-month period in the fall of 2008. As the mortgage and financial crisis grew, 70% of Americans said they were following economic conditions very closely in September of 2008, and in October 59% reported very close attention to the stock market declines specifically. Around the same time, 62% said they were following the debate in Washington over plans to use government funds to stabilize the markets very closely. By this measure, public interest in the bank bailout debate was far more intense than the highest levels of interest in the 2009-2010 health care debate (51% followed very closely in the final week before passage) or the 2009 stimulus debate (50% very closely). And to top off a month packed with economic news, 61% of Americans were following the 2008 election very closely at the same time.

Interest in news reports about the situation in Iraq peaked during the early months of the war. In May 2003, during the week in which President Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech and two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, 63% said they were following news about the situation in Iraq very closely. Just a year later, a darker chapter in the war – the offensive by insurgents in Fallujah and allegations of abuse by U.S. troops at abu Ghraib prison – also drew considerable interest. In May 2004, 54% said they followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely.

Public attention to news about the war in Afghanistan was highest when military action began in late 2001 and early 2002, when 51% were following very closely. By the summer of 2002 interest had fallen off substantially; in July 2002 41% were following events in Afghanistan very closely. In recent years, the highest level of interest in Afghanistan came in late 2009 as Barack Obama announced his plans for winding down the U.S. military effort there. In December of that year, 43% followed his policy announcement very closely.

Of the biggest news stories of 2010, three make the list of the decade’s top stories: the earthquake in Haiti, which 60% followed very closely, is among the top ten most closely followed stories of the decade. Slightly lower, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer was followed very closely by 59% at the peak of public interest. And the final debate over health care reform was followed very closely by 51%, just edging in to the top 25 stories of the decade.