Casey Anthony Trial Got More News Coverage Than GOP Candidates

The biggest news story of the past six weeks was something completely trivial.

Until yesterday’s verdict, which prompted posts from myself, James Joyner, and Dodd Harris, we haven’t covered the Casey Anthony trial here at OTB. Not surprisingly you cannot say the same thing for the broadcast and cable news media:

A Smart Politics study of Lexis-Nexis transcripts from CNN, FOX, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NPR found more news reports mentioned the Casey Anthony trial at least one time than any of the 10+ major and minor Republican presidential candidates since opening statements were delivered on May 24th.

The Anthony murder case was covered in 899 reports overall, with Mitt Romney mentioned in 764, followed by Michele Bachmann at 609, Tim Pawlenty at 454, Newt Gingrich at 438, and Herman Cain at 321.

Trailing further behind were 2012 newcomers and long-shot Republican candidates Jon Huntsman at 299 reports, Ron Paul at 269, Rick Santorum at 251, Thad McCotter at 30, Gary Johnson at 19, and Buddy Roemer at one.

It’s worth noting that this study only counts the number of times a subject matter was mentioned and doesn’t reflect the amount of time spent on the topic. However, given the obsessive analysis I saw last night on the verdict, I think we can assume that each mention of Casey Anthony was likely accompanied by a news story that lasted longer than the average news story on, say, Jon Huntsman.

Not surprisingly, CNN and its sister network HLN came in first with some 567 mentions over the past 42 days. ABC News was second with 173 reports about the case, Fox News was next at 122 mentions, and then CBS at 36 mentions. Oddly, MSNBC is only credited with one mention of the trial in 42 days, but this doesn’t seem right. Just from my own anecdotal experience it seems like the story was covered much more than that, but that may be reflection of the fact that MSNBC does not make all of its programming transcripts available to LEXIS/NEXIS.

In any case, while this is depressing in some sense, it is hardly surprising. The television media, especially the cable networks, tends to focus obsessively on trivialities like the Anthony trial, and the audience seems to eat it up. Ed Morrissey looks at the numbers and sees a case of misplaced priorities on the part of the media:

Yesterday, we heard from a number of commenters and readers about their frustration with the blanket coverage of the trial.  The numbers show that they have a point, and that the national media has a problem with its priorities.

Really? I’m not so sure. Certainly people like Ed and I, and probably most of the people who read our respective blogs, would prefer it if the cable networks spend less time on nonsese like this (or other stories like the Natalee Holloway case or, to go back further in time, Jon Benet Ramsey). However, it’s clear that the networks cover these stories because they bring in viewers in numbers that political coverage doesn’t, especially this far out from an election. As much as I’d like to think I lived in a country where people focused only on important issues, we most clearly don’t and, since the networks are money making enterprises, they have to appeal to their audience.

You need look no further for proof of that than the ratings of HLN, which usually plays the role of CNN’s forgotten stepchild, as trial frenzy heated up:

The case’s robust ratings, both locally and nationally, were fueled not only by tabloid-ready details, but also by social media, which routinely hummed with the trial’s inner workings, according to media experts. During the trial, local ratings showed that more than half of TV sets in Orlando were tuned into the trial’s live coverage at any given time.

But far away from the Disney-dominated tourist hub, trial coverage ratings set new records as well. Viewers latched onto the salacious case and its shocking conclusion, boosting the wall-to-wall coverage on cable channel HLN to the best ratings in its history.

The network, second only to Fox News in June, saw dramatic jumps in its audience, as much as 86% in prime time thanks to extensive trial coverage, with spikes that initially came from the Midwest (Chicago) and South (Atlanta) but expanded to major markets like Los Angeles and New York.


Meanwhile, the Miami Herald, Washington Post, RadarOnline and the Daily Beast were among the outlets to live-stream the case, as did local stations around the country such as WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C. And two media companies, Progressive Lifestyles and Orlando’s WESH-TV parent Hearst TV, even launched digital apps with live streaming, news stories, case files and updates — both of which instantly became big sellers.

Don’t blame the media completely for this. As the old saying goes, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Update: Brian Stetler confirms the Casey Anthony trial ratings spike:

The conclusion of the Casey Anthony trial in Florida prompted spikes in television viewership on Tuesday, especially for the cable news channel HLN, which drew its biggest total audience in its 29-year-old history.

Between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m. Eastern, when Ms. Anthony and viewers learned that she was found not guilty of murdering her daughter Caylee, 5.2 million people were watching HLN, an increase of 1,700 percent over the channel’s usual audience of 283,000 people at that time of day.

About two million people had been watching HLN earlier in the afternoon in anticipation of the verdict. When the court announced at 1:30 p.m. that the verdict was about to be read, the audience quickly more than doubled, presumably thanks in part to social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, where people alerted their friends to the news.

Audiences for other cable news channels also more than doubled between 1:30 and 2:15. HLN’s sister channel CNN, for instance, had about 404,000 people watching between 1:15 and 1:30 on Tuesday, and that number more than quintupled to 2.3 million between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m. (The Nielsen Company shares ratings averages in 15-minute chunks with its clients.)

The Fox News Channel, normally the highest-rated of all the cable news channels, had about 1.08 million viewers between 1:15 and 1:30, and that number nearly tripled to 2.9 million between 2:15 and 2:30. MSNBC’s audience also nearly tripled, from about 359,000 viewers between 1:15 and 1:30 to 920,000 viewers between 2:15 and 2:30.

And that’s just for the verdict announcement. Don’t blame the media, they’re just giving the people what they want.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. hey norm says:

    She deserves more news coverage than the GOP candidates…and she deserves no news coverage.

  2. ponce says:

    Former call center worker Special Ed telling the media they have “misplaced priorities” in their coverage has got to be the most ironic post I’ve ever read here on OTB.

  3. mantis says:

    Really? I’m not so sure. Certainly people like Ed and I, and probably most of the people who read our respective blogs, would prefer it if the cable networks spend less time on nonsese like this (or other stories like the Natalee Holloway case or, to go back further in time, Jon Benet Ramsey).

    There’s a simple solution to this I’ve been employing for years: don’t watch. I didn’t even know who Casey Anthony was until two days ago, and I learned that on OTB (and my interest in the subject went no further). If enough people who dislike the media’s focus on unimportant, sensationalist “news” just stop watching, they’ll do something else to catch your interest. Maybe there’s just not enough of us, but even if that is the case, you’re still better off not watching.

  4. @mantis:

    Yes but I think the broader point is that we are in a distinct minority.

  5. mantis says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yes but I think the broader point is that we are in a distinct minority.

    Maybe true, but I wonder. Have you ever met anyone who thinks the news media cover important topics more than garbage and sensationalism? They still watch, of course, but do they just watch because they want some news and are willing to put up with the crap in exchange? What if they weren’t willing anymore?

  6. ratufa says:

    It is 6 months until the Iowa caucuses. It is 16 months until the election. Unless you’re a political groupie of some sort, it makes perfect sense to not give a rat’s ass about the GOP candidates at this time. Really, a huge part of current mainstream media campaign coverage consists of political gossip, such as Newt’s Tiffany bill, that is of as little consequence to the country as the Casey Anthony trial. And, at least the outcome of the trial was in doubt, unlike the outcome of Newt’s presidential run. Most of the rest of the coverage is more like the calling of a horse race than serious analysis. Why waste the brain cells remembering Herman Cain’s inevitable flameout or the names of the Libertarian candidates who, by tradition, make futile runs at the nomination and are treated like lepers at the debates (besides, once you’ve memorized “Ron Paul”, you’ve pretty much aced that question).

    If you want the MSM to cover something important, maybe they should provide useful coverage of the current budget debates or our growing surveillance state or any number of other things that are of more significance.

  7. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    The only potential saving grace is that the public has been dumbed down to such an extent by the Democrat mass media that perhaps at this juncture a critical mass of them literally are too stupid to vote. We can only hope.

  8. Wayne says:

    I agree with it is a long ways until election so that influence the candidates coverage.

    I also agree that the media will sink their teeth in one of these stories and overdo it. IMO it is the reality T.V. deal. I can’t stand them much myself but others must. I think that once someone including media types gets a little emotionally involved their interest gets high and rationality tends to go out the window. O’Reilly is particularly bad about letting his emotions getting in the way of his rationality. Nancy Grace isn’t any better.

    Once the media get that emotional hook into someone they play it for all the ratings it is worth. It is not like there are not many other missing or murder children cases out there. However once someone can personally identify with a case it becomes important.