June 16, 2010

The BP Spill Leads the Disaster List

Disaster stories
Gulf Oil Leak April 2010 1637
Earthquake in Haiti Janaury 2010 1027
California Wildfires October 2007 564
Minneapolis Bridge Collapse August 2007 495
Midwest Floods June 2008 478
Hurricane Ike September 2008 393

1st – Rank of the BP oil spill among disaster stories since 2007

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico topped the news agenda the week of June 7-13, registering at 34% of the newshole. That marks the fifth week in a row that the event has dominated the headlines. Indeed, in the eight weeks since the April 20 rig explosion, the disaster has overshadowed every other news story, filling 23% of the newshole in that time frame. The second-biggest story in that period has been the U.S. economy, well behind at 13%.

Not only has the Gulf saga become the leading news story of the past two months. It is also the most-covered disaster since PEJ began its News Coverage Index in January 2007, generating 1,637 stories since the April 20 accident. And at this point, there is no end in sight to either the Gulf gusher or the media’s interest in it.

One thing that sets the oil spill apart from most other disasters is the story’s staying power. Many natural or human-caused disaster stories have faded from the media spotlight quickly, becoming in effect “one-week wonders”. Among the six most-covered disasters examined by PEJ since January 2007, only the oil spill and the devastating January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti have filled more than 2% of the newshole for longer than two weeks.

Indeed, that catastrophic Haiti quake—estimated to have killed 230,000 people and left 1 million homeless—is the No. 2 disaster story since 2007. The week it occurred, January 11-17, 2010, the story filled 41% of the newshole—higher than any single week of coverage of the oil rig disaster. Attention to the quake and its aftermath remained high and continued to fill at least 5% of the newshole for the next four weeks. This sustained coverage generated 1,027 stories.

In a distant third place are the wildfires that struck Southern California in October 2007. Those blazes, which killed 9 people and destroyed about 1,500 homes, generated 544 stories. Next, with 495 stories, is the August 7, 2007, rush-hour collapse of an eight-lane bridge in Minneapolis that killed 11 and injured 145.

The fifth-biggest disaster story in the past three years (478 stories) is the severe flooding across the Midwest in June 2008 which led to 13 deaths. Finishing next, at 393 stories, was Hurricane Ike, which reportedly killed 195 (112 in the U.S.) as it passed over Haiti and Texas in September 2008.

Tricia Sartor and Dana Page of PEJ

Note: Beginning in 2010, PEJ made changes to the NCI universe that result in fewer stories being coded each week. This fact makes the differences between coverage of the oil spill and the previous disasters even more pronounced. Complete details about the changes to PEJ’s sample are available here.