May 25, 2007

Iraq Dominates PEJ’s First Quarterly NCI Report

Anna Nicole Smith

A news event in early 2007 well-remembered by many was the sudden and mysterious February 8 death of a 39-year-old playmate/heiress and occasional actress named Anna Nicole Smith. By the time she was finally buried 23 days later on March 2—after a legal battle over issues ranging from jurisdiction over her remains to the paternity of her infant daughter—her name had become synonymous with what many viewed as a tabloid-style media feeding frenzy.

While the mainstream media outlets studied in PEJ’s News Coverage Index devote some attention to celebrity info-tainment sagas—Paris Hilton’s run-ins with the law, Alec Baldwin’s voicemail rant at his daughter, the Rosie O’Donnell-Donald Trump feud—most consume about 1% or less of any week’s coverage so far this year. They never really gained traction as major mainstream media events. 

For reasons that can still be debated, the Anna Nicole Smith case was very different. For four straight weeks—from February 4 through March 2—it was a top-10 news story. It also re-surfaced as a top-10 story in the week of March 25, when the autopsy report concluded that she had died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

By the end of three months, Smith’s death—and the many related issues—rated as the eighth-biggest news story of the year so far. It filled 2% of the overall newshole, finishing just ahead of the newly elected Democratic majorities in Congress and just behind the Valerie Plame case that led to the conviction of the Vice President’s top aide, Scooter Libby.

As it turned out, the Anna Nicole Smith saga was a classic example of a selective feeding frenzy, a story propelled into public consciousness and kept there for weeks by the extensive coverage in two media sectors—cable news networks and network morning shows. And even within those sectors, there were notable variations in the coverage.

With coverage reaching into 30% of the newshole during the height of the saga, the Smith story was the third biggest on cable for the entire first quarter of the year. It filled 7% of the newshole, finishing behind only the Iraq policy debate and the presidential race. On daytime cable, with its greater focus on live coverage and breaking events, it proved to be the biggest story (11%).

There were also differences by cable channel. For the quarter, it was the Fox News Channel that devoted the most time to the subject. The Smith saga accounted for 10% of the network’s overall coverage, narrowly finishing as the second biggest story behind the Iraq policy debate (also at 10%). Smith was the fifth-place story at both CNN and MSNBC, where it accounted for 4% and 6% of the coverage respectively.

The only other platform in which Smith’s death ranked in the top 5 stories was network morning television, where it was the fifth biggest story overall at 4%. It was the third biggest story (6%) on CBS’s “Early Show,” the fifth biggest topic (4%) on NBC’s “Today” and the seventh biggest subject (3%) on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” 

Polling by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that while a majority of those surveyed (61%) thought the story was over-covered, there was a substantial core of people, particularly young women, who were following the story closely. In the relatively small universe of cable watchers—where audiences are measured in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions—that is enough interest to have an impact on ratings.