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Egypt News Coverage: Biggest International Story In Last 4 Years

Callie Schweitzer |
February 9, 2011 | 9:40 p.m. PST


(Courtesy of PEJ)
(Courtesy of PEJ)
Research from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last week showed us no one really wants to hear about Egypt all day every day.

But this week, it seems covering the hell out of something can actually increase people's interest instead of making them run for the hills.

"Three-in-ten Americans (30%) say they followed news about the protests more closely than any other story," according to Feb. 9 data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "The previous week, just 11% said the protests were their top story."

But public interest didn't mirror the heightened attention the story got in the media.

Coverage of Egypt and the chaos in the Middle East is now officially "the biggest international story in the past four years—surpassing any coverage of the Iraq war, the Haiti earthquake and the conflict in Afghanistan," according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The civil unrest in Egypt accounted for 56 percent of last week's media coverage and "registered as the fourth-biggest story of any kind—trailing only two weeks in the 2008 presidential campaign and the aftermath of the January 8, 2011 Tucson shooting spree," the PEJ report said.

The coverage of the chaos and civil disorder in Egypt from Jan. 31-Feb. 6 was up from 20 percent the previous week. With Middle East unrest accounting for 56 percent of the newshole, the massive blizzard came in at 8 percent, the health care debate at 7 percent, the economy at 5 percent and the Arizona shootings at 2 percent of the newshole.

"Despite increased public interest in the protests, about as many Americans (26%) say the story they followed most closely last week was the powerful winter storm system that hit the Midwest and the Northeast," PEJ reports.

This idea of the public prioritizing news closer to home rings true.

Nearly 75 percent of people said that while they see Egypt as important there are issues at home in the U.S. that matter more to them. Fifty-two percent said they don't know enough of the situation's background to follow the ongoings in Egypt.

The data reveals that cable news outlets devoted the most time to the Middle East--76 percent of cable airtime was focused on the unrest (up from 36 percent the previous week), while network news devoted 59 percent of its airtime to it (up from 20 percent). Middle East coverage on the radio came in at 55 percent (up from 11 percent), online coverage came in at 51 percent (up from 15 percent) and newspaper coverage came in at 44 percent (up from 15 percent).

A large focus of the Middle East coverage has centered on America's relationship with 30-year Egyptian President Hosni Mubarack who has served as a key ally for the U.S.'s Middle East relations.

Much of last week's coverage looked at what comes next for Mubarak, making him the biggest newsmaker of the week appearing in 73 stories, which equates to about 8 percent of the week's stories. President Obama, who normally holds the week's top spot, came in at No. 2 in 59 stories, which equates to about 6 percent of the week's stories.

It appears Egypt hasn't captured the interest of the American public like other international issues have in the past.

PEJ reports:

In January 2010, close to six-in-ten (57%) said the earthquake that devastated Haiti was the story they followed most closely that week. Six-in-ten (60%) said they followed this news very closely. News about Haiti that week accounted for 41% of the newshole that week.

Last October, 40% said the story they followed most closely was the rescue of a group of Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for months. Nearly half (49%) said they followed this news very closely. The story accounted for 21% of coverage for the week.

In April 2009, the public took a strong interest in news about pirates commandeering ships off the coast of Somalia. About a third (34%) said this was the story they followed most closely that week; 41% said they were following this news very closely. News about the pirates made up 16% of the newshole.

Before the record coverage of Egypt from Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011, the biggest international story to date had been the Iraq War, which accounted for 43 percent of the newshole from Sept. 9-14 in 2007.

But what makes Egypt bigger than Iraq?

"Why has an event that has not involved U.S. troops or directly imperiled U.S. citizens generated significantly more attention than the country’s two wars?" PEJ asks. "One major reason is the number of cameras and journalists (including network anchors) in the country transmitting such riveting scenes as last week’s video of men on camels attacking crowds of protestors in Cairo. Another is the high stakes for the U.S. in one of the world’s most volatile regions as it tries to balance a strategic alliance with President Hosni Mubarak and support of pro-democracy protestors. A third factor may be uncertainty—will Mubarak resign and who will govern after him? And some of last week’s coverage was driven by the fact that the media themselves became part of the story—with journalists being harassed, attacked and detained amid the chaos."

To reach editor-in-chief Callie Schweitzer, click here.
To follow her on Twitter: @cschweitz
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