Even National Public Radio spent some air time the other day on cause celèbre, Paris Hilton’s trip to jail, crying jag, and premature trip back home—albeit in a bemused “we’re-actually-above-reporting-this-kind-of-story” tone. Not surprisingly, the Paris saga was among the top five stories reported by American media last week, due only in small part to celebrity gazing briefly taking on a more serious flavor as a “morality tale about double standards in the criminal justice system.”

Here is the week’s news agenda breakdown according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism:

PEW news index, Paris Hilton

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  • I’ve already spent some of my own air time lamenting our premature obsession with coverage of the 2008 presidential race, but naturally debates held for both parties put “horse race ’08” in the #1 spot last week. That I understand—to a degree. Immigration, US—Russia relations, and the Libby trial and sentencing all make sense as top stories. But then there’s Paris.

    What are the costs of this kind of rabid celebrity coverage? In this case, possibly climate. Bush’s sudden revelation about the importance of fighting global warming had G8 leaders talking about ways to fight climate change, but still the story failed—as usual—to break into the news agenda big 5, let alone the top 10 (Here are the week’s top 10 stories ranked by percent).

    So, why does a post-teeny-bopper hotel heiress get more attention than the biggest global crisis in human history? Some context might help us understand what we already know: soft news sells. Here is the Mooney and Nisbet, Framing Science take:

    …the media tend to feed on the soft news preferences of the mass audience, making it very easy for citizens who lack a strong interest in public affairs or science coverage to completely avoid such content and instead pay only close attention to infotainment sagas.

    We’ve seen it before; the Anna Nicole Smith feeding frenzy isn’t far behind us. Consider Pew’s analysis of US news coverage for the entire first quarter of 2007.

    • In January, February and March, the health care system made up only roughly 1% of the newshole.
    • The same was true of race and gender relations, education, housing, and religion.
    • Global warming also made up only 1% of the newshole.
    • All other environmental issues combined made up less.
    • While stories about Anna Nicole Smith received a total of 2% of news coverage in the three months of the first quarter (Anna Nicole Smith accounted for 10% of Fox News coverage during the first quarter.)
    • For comparison’s sake, Iraq received the most media coverage in the first quarter, 22%, and 2008 campaign coverage came in a distant second at 7%.

    (*by the way, you probably know this, but newshole is an ugly word for all the “space”—either column inches, airtime, or virtual online real estate — devoted to news. PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media, newspapers, online, cable TV, network TV, and radio.)

    The question is, how do we get Paris to make a huge stink about fuel efficiency standards or clean energy tax credits or something. Or if that’s too wonky, she could simply stomp her foot about entire towns in Alaska that are being moved because of melting permafrost. Other celebrities don’t seem to have the same newshole pull. So what if her debut pop album was a flop (she was never about real products anyway), Paris has the power to land climate on the Pew charts.