June 14, 2007

Paris Hilton Becomes a National News Story

Summary of Findings

Paris Hilton’s legal problems became a national news story last week. Coverage of Hilton being released from and then returned to jail filled 4% of the newshole, making it the fifth most heavily covered story of the week. Roughly a third of Americans (34%) said they followed news about Hilton very or fairly closely, and 12% said it was the single news story they followed more closely than any other. In this regard, interest in Hilton surpassed interest in the 2008 presidential campaign, the G-8 summit, and talks between George Bush and Vladimir Putin. However, there was far more public interest in the situation in Iraq (25% most closely) than in Hilton’s out-again, in-again jail drama.

The Hilton story was covered much more heavily on cable TV and radio than on other media sectors. Cable devoted 9% of its overall coverage to Hilton, making it the third most heavily covered story of the week. Toward the end of the week, as the story heated up, 21% of cable news focused on Hilton’s travails. Young people, who normally tune out national news, were one of the core audiences for the Hilton story. Fully 20% of those under age 30 listed Hilton’s troubles as their most closely followed news story of the week. Hilton’s legal saga and the immigration debate were the top stories for young people, while older age groups were more focused on the situation in Iraq.

In terms of news interest, the Hilton story lagged well behind other celebrity scandals, including such high- profile criminal trials as O.J. Simpson’s, Jim Bakker’s, Mike Tyson’s or William Kennedy Smith’s. With 34% of the public following Hilton’s troubles at least fairly closely, this scandal is on par with the death of Anna Nicole Smith (39% followed very/fairly closely), Mel Gibson’s drunk driving outburst (37%), and Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s break-up in the early 1990s (32%).

These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s agenda. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism‘s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis.

Iraq and Immigration

Paris Hilton’s troubles aside, the public remained focused on the war in Iraq last week. Fully 32% said they were following the situation in Iraq very closely and 25% said it was the story they followed most closely. Interest in Iraq remained substantial even though news coverage of Iraq declined significantly. Only 4% of the national news was devoted to events on the ground in Iraq and 2% to the Iraq policy debate. The policy debate had consistently been a top five story from the time George Bush announced the surge strategy in January through the end of May.

The immigration debate was the second most closely followed news story of the week and the second most heavily covered story. Roughly a quarter of the public (24%) followed the debate very closely and 17% listed it as their top story of the week. The national news media devoted 9% of its coverage to immigration. Republicans and Democrats were equally interested in the immigration debate.

With two candidate debates — one for each party — the 2008 presidential campaign was the most heavily covered news story of the week. Fully 15% of news coverage was devoted to the campaign. Public interest in the campaign remained about where it has been in recent weeks — 19% of the public followed campaign news very closely and 11% listed the campaign as their top story.

Two foreign policy stories — the G-8 summit in Germany and the discussions between Bush and Putin — rounded out the list of top news stories last week. The summit was followed very closely by 13% of the public and 6% said it was their most closely followed story. Similarly, 17% of the public followed the Bush/Putin talks and 5% said that was their top story.

About the News Interest Index

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.