February 12, 2009

When Ordinary People Generate Major Headlines

# of stories
Caylee Anthony 50
Sam Wurzel- bacher 43
Casey Anthony 41
Bruce Pardo 26
Chesley Sullen- berger 18
Anne Pressly 13
Nadya Suleman 12
Cole Puffin- burger 11
Jennifer Seitz 10
Ashley Todd 10

5% – Network TV airtime for the Hudson River hero saga last week

On Jan. 15, pilot Chesley Sullenberger steered a U.S. Airways jetliner into the Hudson River after a flock of birds knocked out the plane’s engines. All 155 people on board made it out safely. Sullenberger quickly went from obscurity to celebrity status. And measured by the number of stories in which he was a lead newsmaker—meaning at least 50% of that story was about him—“Sully” was the fifth-biggest average American newsmaker in the past six months, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. (An average American is someone who was not a previously known celebrity in fields ranging from the arts to politics to sports).

But the valiant act that earned Sullenberger his media attention was the exception to the norm. Most people on our top-10 ordinary newsmaker list have been either a perpetrator or victim of crime.

The tragic story of missing toddler Caylee Anthony, whose body was found in December, thrust her and her mother Casey, who has been charged with her murder, into the spotlight. They rank No. 1 and No. 3 respectively. Bruce Pardo (No. 4) dressed up as Santa Claus and murdered his ex-wife and family on Christmas Eve. Anne Pressly (No. 6) was a TV reporter in Kansas who was attacked in her home and later died. Six-year-old Cole Puffinburger (No. 8) was kidnapped from his Las Vegas home in October and discovered safe a few days later. Ashley Todd, tied for the ninth spot, claimed an Obama supporter attacked her and carved a backward ‘B’ on her cheek. It turned out to be a hoax and she was charged with a misdemeanor.

Two other people on the list of top-10 newsmakers are controversial in their own right. Sam Wurzelbacher (No. 2), better known as Joe the Plumber, became a celebrity when John McCain tried to make him a symbol of working class America during the campaign. (That effort was greeted by news that Wurzelbacher had a tax lien problem). Nadya Sulleman (No. 7) was the focal point of controversy when it was revealed that the woman who gave birth to octuplets on Jan. 26 already had six kids at home and no income.

The other top newsmaker, Jennifer Seitz, (tied for No. 9) fell of a cruise ship on Christmas day, triggering considerable speculation, but few hard facts, about the mysterious circumstances of her death.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ