July 27, 1999

JFK Jr Tragedy Attracts Huge Audience

Introduction and Summary

News of the disappearance and death of John F. Kennedy Jr. attracted a large news audience last week, but most Americans think that news organizations over-covered the story. More than eight-in-ten paid attention to news of the tragedy, and as many as 54% paid very close attention. It ranks as one of the most closely followed news stories of recent years, and only second in 1999 to interest in news about the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, which was followed very closely by 68% of the public. Interest in JFK Jr.’s death was comparable to news about the death of Princess Diana two years ago.

Most Americans (52%) believe that news organizations gave too much coverage to the story; only 42% think the media gave the tragedy the right amount of coverage. By a 55%-to-29% majority people say the news media covered it as much as they did because it was an interesting story that would attract big audiences, rather than because it was big news that people needed to know. However, fewer think the JFK Jr. story was over-covered by the media than felt that way about the OJ trial (90%), the William Kennedy Smith trial (71%) or the Lewinsky scandal (69%). The Pew Research Center survey of 753 respondents was conducted July 23-26, 1999.

Americans of all ages paid close attention to JFK Jr.’s disappearance, even those not old enough to have clear personal memories of President Kennedy. As many as 48% of those under age 45 paid very close attention to news about the tragedy. Interest was greater among those ages 45 to 59 (54%) and greater yet among people ages 60 and older (70%). Women were much more attentive than were men (60% to 48%).

Men and women also reacted differently to the tragedy. A 53% majority of women felt upset and saddened by the news, compared to only 25% of men, most of whom felt sorry but not personally affected by what happened. Older people were also more emotionally caught up in the news than were people under 60 years of age.