The California wildfires overshadowed all other news stories last week both in terms of public interest and news coverage. Four-in-ten Americans followed news about the fires very closely, making it the fourth most closely followed news story of the year. The only stories that have attracted a larger audience this year were rising gas prices in May, the Virginia Tech shootings in April, and the Minnesota bridge collapse in August. Nearly half of the public (46%) listed the California fires as the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week.
Large scale natural disasters, when they occur on American soil, tend to attract a large news audience. Interest in last week's California fires does not come close to the level of interest for Hurricane Katrina (73% followed that story very closely), the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, or Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It is more comparable to past California fires – slightly below the level of interest in the 1993 fires and slightly higher than in the fires of 2003.
Comprising 38% of the national newshole, the wildfires became the second most heavily covered news story of 2007. Only the Virginia Tech shootings surpassed the fires in terms of overall news coverage. The fires were covered more intensely on television news outlets than on other sectors – 53% of network TV news and 51% of cable news was devoted to the story.
Read the full report California Wildfires Draw Large Audience on the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Web site.