In an era in which virtually all Americans share very few things, the story of Princess Diana’s death captivated the nation. Nearly nine in ten Americans paid attention to news of the tragedy and more than half (54%) followed the tragedy very closely. No other story this year has come close.
Modern communications have spawned an ever increasing diversity of tastes and interests and decidedly smaller audiences for everything from news stories to sit-coms. Add to this growing public cynicism and distrust, and the consequence is that there are very few things to which everyone pays attention. In fact, recent monthly news interest surveys have documented waning interest in all current events. The death of Princess Diana was one of those rare stories to upend the trends.
What also distinguished the extraordinary interest in Princess Diana’s death is that the story is primarily about one person. Most news stories that generate this much attention are about large scale events — wars and disasters, both man-made and natural. Even at the height of interest in the murder charges against O.J. Simpson, only 48% of the public were following the story very closely. And though Princess Diana did have a following among readers of tabloids and People, general interest in her was modest during her life. Earlier Center surveys have found only slight interest in Diana’s marital woes (11% following very closely in 1993 and 3% in 1996).
Jessica McClure is the only other individual to have ranked with Diana in news interest. While her name may not sound familiar today, for three days in October, 1987, the Midland, Texas toddler captivated the nation, as rescuers attempted to free her from a deep well. The parallels between Jessica McClure and Princess Diana are few indeed, except perhaps for a shared personal vulnerability.
Speculation that the story of Diana drew more women than men proved right. Nearly two thirds of female respondents (64%) paid very close attention compared to 43% among men. While women consistently pay more attention to big news events than men — with the notable exception of war stories — this 21 percentage point gender gap is huge. Of the top 20 mostly closely watched stories in the past decade, only Jessica McClure’s fate provoked a gender gap even close — 16 percentage points.
Two news stories that affected American consumers last month also drew much higher than average interest. The recall of millions of pounds of possibly contaminated meat last month was followed very closely by 40% of the public; and the end of the United Parcel Service strike was followed very closely by 36%. The typical story tested by the Center is followed very closely by just one in four respondents.
Decidedly smaller audiences were observed for other stories that made headlines last month. Less than one in five (17%) closely followed the story of improper campaign contributions to Democrats; 14% the stock market’s ups and downs; 15% problems aboard the Russian space station Mir; 13% the suicide bombing in Jerusalem; and 12% the clashes between U.S. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia and mobs of Bosnian Serbs.