December 6, 2007

Terrorism, Tight Credit, and Tragedies Emerge in the News in Third Quarter

Disasters Get Big Play

The summer also became a time for disasters in the news. The third quarter included two man-made disasters that ranked among the leading news events—the Aug. 1 collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis and the Aug. 6 cave-in at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Huntington, Utah.

The stunning evening rush-hour collapse of a key commuter artery in Minnesota, complete with images of cars tossed around like toys and tales of dramatic rescue, also seemed to touch a deeper chord. While the ultimate casualty count, 13 dead, did not compare to the carnage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the event did seem, at least in the media’s coverage, to reinforce a loss of self-confidence in American know-how, and invincibility and doubts about an aging infrastructure.


A Washington Post column headlined “The Can’t Do Nation,” lamented that the U.S. “seems to have become the superpower that can’t tie its own shoelaces … Its bridges shouldn’t fall down.”

Cable covered the collapse and subsequent rescue efforts non-stop. From Aug. 1 through Aug. 3, the story accounted for 69% of all the cable airtime examined. Overall, the tragedy accounted for 25% of all the coverage during the week of July 29-Aug. 3, making it the fifth-biggest weekly story of the first three quarters of 2007. It was the fifth-biggest story at 3% of the newshole for the entire quarter.

The Utah mine collapse, while not generating the intensity of coverage that the bridge drama did, ended up as the tenth-biggest story overall in the quarter, at 2% of the newshole. With miners trapped 1,500 feet below the ground, the rescue operations and dimming hopes for the six trapped men became a big part of the story narrative. The incident was the second-biggest story during the week of Aug. 5-10, when it filled 13% of the newshole and was the lead story on all three evening newscasts on the night the accident occurred.

Even as the chances for a happy ending faded, the tragedy had some staying power, remaining a top-five story the following week (at 7%) and the ninth-biggest story (at 3%) the week of Aug. 19-24. As with the bridge collapse, the mine cave-in got the most coverage on cable, where it filled 4% of the total airtime for the quarter.

The bridge collapse had a shorter shelf-life than the mine cave-in. By the second week of the bridge story (Aug. 5-10), it had dropped off dramatically to only 6% of the newshole and the week after that, it failed to make the top-10 story list.

Combined, the two major tragedies—the bridge collapse and mine cave in—filled about 5% of the newshole for the quarter, meaning that together, they generated nearly as much coverage as the third-biggest story of the quarter, events inside Iraq, at 5%.