April 4, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith - Anatomy of a Feeding Frenzy

Who Didn't Feed the Frenzy

Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Charlie Gibson all talked about Anna Nicole Smith’s death on their February 8 newscasts.

Network Evening News
Percent of Newshole Devoted to Major Stories
Feb 8 – March 2, 2007
Story Commercial


Iraq policy debate 8% 21%
Iraq homefront 6 17
Events in Iraq 10 6
Campaign 2008 5 3
Anna Nicole Smith 2 3
Source: PEJ News Coverage Index

But nightly commercial network coverage pretty much shut down after that. The NBC, CBS and ABC newscasts aired a combined total of about 18 minutes of Smith stories in the entire February 8-March 2 period. None of them were among the first three pieces in any newscast. In all, that amounted to 2% of the evening news newshole.[1]

And one program did not offer a single utterance on the subject. Public broadcasting’s nightly “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” spent no time covering Smith’s death and the many legal battles that ensued.

Percent of Newshole Devoted to top 5 Stories
Feb 9 – March 2, 2007
Story %
Campaign 2008 8
Events in Iraq 7
Iran 6
Iraq Homefront 6
North Korea 3
Source: PEJ News Coverage Index

After their initial burst of interest, the 13 newspapers in our sample also dropped the Smith story from Page One, producing a total of only seven front-page stories and about 7,000 words on the subject throughout the more than three weeks. Constituting only 1% of the overall front page newshole, the Smith episode was the 13th biggest newspaper story in that period. It generated less coverage even than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the health care debate. The top three stories in newspapers during the period were the 2008 campaign (8%), events in Iraq (7%) and tensions between the U.S. relations and Iran (6%).

Percent of Newshole Devoted to top 6 Stories
Feb 9 – March 2, 2007
Story %
Events in Iraq 13
Iraq Policy Debate 9
Campaign 2008 9
Iran 6
Snowstorms 4
Anna Nicole Smith 4
Source: PEJ News Coverage Index

Online media and radio news gave the story somewhat more attention, but came nowhere near matching cable’s intensity. Overall, the Web sites examined by PEJ ran 17 pieces on Smith, making it the sixth biggest online story at 4%. It lagged behind the subject of growing tension with Iran and severe winter weather and finished just ahead of U.S. relations with North Korea.

The story also filled 4% of the newshole in radio, where it was the fifth biggest topic, right behind global warming and just ahead of the conflict with Iran.

Percent of Newshole Devoted to top 5 Stories
Feb 8 – March 2, 2007
Story %
Iraq Policy Debate 21
Campaign 2008 11
Events in Iraq 5
Global Warming 4
Anna Nicole Smith 4
Source: PEJ News Coverage Index

The radio sector includes a number of both conservative and liberal talkhosts (as well as NPR programming and top-of-the-hour headline reads). But even in a platform that can thrive on scandal and controversy, the events surrounding Smith’s death did not gain serious traction. In the three weeks, the topic filled just 5% of the talk radio menu, getting only about 40 minutes of airtime. And when the radio talkers did address the issue, it was often to criticize what they considered excessive media attention.

“Another drugged-out starlet collapses and dies and all the news of the world stops,” bellowed conservative host Michael Savage. “Frankly, I’m sick of the news.”

“How many Americans actually know we lost four service men and women in Iraq the day that [Smith] tipped over?” asked liberal talker Ed Schultz on his show. “Where’s the fair coverage of that? Where’s our priorities?”


1. The PEJ Index studies the first half hour of the NewsHour, but for this special report we also studied the transcripts of the second half hour. There were no mentions of Anna Nicole Smith.