December 28, 1999

Columbine Shooting Biggest News Draw of 1999

Introduction and Summary

The murderous rampage by a pair of high school students in Littleton, Colo. attracted by far the most public interest of any news story of 1999. The widespread attention focused on the April shootings at Columbine High made it the third most closely watched story of the 1990s, according to the Pew Research Center’s ongoing surveys of public attentiveness to domestic and international developments.

Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) Americans said they followed the Columbine High School shootings very closely, placing news of that tragedy behind only the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 among the decade’s most closely followed stories. Fully nine-in-ten Americans (92%) said they followed the shootings very or fairly closely. Interest was particularly high among young people, who tend not to follow news as attentively as older Americans; 73% of those under 30 tracked the violence at Columbine very closely, compared to 65% of those between 30 and 49, and 69% of those 50 and older.

The only other event of the year to attract strong interest from a majority of the public was the July death of John F. Kennedy Jr., which was closely followed by 54% of Americans. More than eight-in-ten (83%) said they paid at least some attention to the story. But a majority of Americans (52%) felt that news organizations devoted too much coverage to the deaths of Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law; just 42% thought the level of coverage was appropriate.

As in many past years, 1999′s list of top stories is dominated by acts of domestic violence, overseas conflicts involving U.S. forces and weather calamities. This is the second consecutive year that a school shooting was the top story; last year’s list was led by violence at a middle school in Jonesboro, Ark. The impeachment trial of President Clinton was the most closely followed Washington story. But less than one-third (31%) paid close attention, placing it ninth.

Still, Americans look back on the Monica Lewinsky scandal as the year’s most important news event, even though relatively few paid close attention as the trial unfolded. In a nationwide survey by Pew earlier this month, 20% of Americans identified events related to the scandal, including the impeachment trial, as the most important story of 1999. The general topic of school violence, which encompassed the shootings at Columbine, was second; it was named as the most important story by 15% of those surveyed. But for more than one-third (37%) of Americans, there was no single dominant story in 1999; they could not name the year’s most important news event.

The presidential campaign has yet to draw the attention of most Americans, despite extensive coverage of the candidate debates and other campaign-related events. News of the candidates’ healthcare proposals has attracted the most public attention. But only 24% followed that issue very closely, with another 33% following it fairly closely.

When Americans were asked in December to name the year’s most important news event, politics barely registered. Less than one percent of those surveyed identified news from the 2000 campaign as the top story.

War and weather, which traditionally generate high levels of interest, were closely watched stories again in 1999. The capture in April of three U.S. servicemen by Serbia was the top international story — and third overall, behind Littleton and the death of JFK Jr. — with nearly half of Americans (47%) following very closely.

But interest in the war in Kosovo faded over time. Just 28% of Americans said they closely followed news of the peace agreement in June that ended the hostilities. And when Americans were asked to name the most important news story from 1999, less than one-in-ten (7%) identified events related to the Kosovo conflict.

Hurricane Floyd and the destruction it wreaked on the Mid-Atlantic was the top weather-related story, with 45% following it very closely. Floyd drew a larger audience than Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (36%) but far less than Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (66%).

The list of the year’s top news stories is derived from monthly Pew Research Center surveys, which ask people how closely they follow selected news stories. In the latest nationwide Pew survey of 1,073 adults, conducted Dec. 8-12, people also were asked to name the single most important news event that happened in the nation or the world in 1999.