Project for Excellence in Journalism | Center for People & Press
In its annual "Year in News" release, PEJ says the economy was 2011's big story, with 20 percent of news time and space dedicated to it in print, online, TV news and radio. That's up from 14 percent in 2010. The other major trend was "a jump of more than a third in coverage of international news." Half of the year's 10 most-covered stories happened overseas, and added together, more than a quarter (28 percent) of all coverage in 2011 was about international events.

"The story that generated the most public interest for the year was the Japanese earthquake and tsunami," PEJ reports. This topic also ranked high in searches on Google News and Yahoo and was one of Twitter's stories of the year.

While mainstream media and the public generally agreed on what stories mattered most, journalists tended to move on from those stories -- including the crisis in Japan -- more quickly than their audiences.

In several cases, high levels of public interest outlasted media coverage as the press moved on to other events.

In the week of March 21-27, for example, half (50%) of the respondents were still following the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake very closely, but media coverage had plunged to 15% from 57% the week before.

That was also the case with the Tucson shooting when coverage dropped to 17% (the week of January 17-23) from 57% the week before, while news interest stayed very high, with 45% saying they were still following the story very closely.

Major weather events generated substantial coverage in the media in 2011, but even then not at the levels registered by the public. Coverage of the deadly Joplin Missouri tornado filled 22% of the newshole from May 23-29, but a full 45% of the public said they were following that story very closely. In a more dramatic divergence, the blizzards that blasted the Midwest the week of January 31-February 6 accounted for 8% of the newshole while almost half (45%) of the public were paying very close attention to them.

While journalists debated whether Hurricane Irene was hyped, the public was following it more closely than media coverage reflected.

As another measure of audience interest, less than half of the year's most-covered stories were among the most-searched stories of 2011. Most notably missing from the coverage: the Casey Anthony trial.

On the flip side, the media covered some stories well beyond the public's interest in them, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest and the phone hacking scandal that led to the closing of Rupert Murdoch's "News of the World" and ongoing UK inquiries.

Here's a comparison of what editors said were the year's top stories, the stories people followed most closely, and the stories that received the most coverage:

Editors' picks for top stories Stories public followed most closely Top stories by amount of coverage
Osama bin Laden death Japan crisis US economy
Japan crisis Gas & oil prices Middle East unrest
Arab Spring Osama bin Laden death 2012 election
EU fiscal crisis US economy Japan crisis
US economy Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords Osama bin Laden death
Penn State sex abuse scandal Gov't shutdown fight Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords
Moammar Gadhafi death/Libya Debt limit deal Afghanistan
Fiscal showdowns in Congress Midwest tornadoes EU economy
Occupy protests Southern storms Obama administration
Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords Hurricane Irene Health care

The PEJ team analyzed about 46,000 stories from Jan. 1-Dec. 11, 2011.