January 16, 1997

A Partisan Public Agenda

Other Important Findings and Analyses

News Interest Index

The disastrous floods in the West and Northwest were the most closely followed story of the month: about a third of Americans (34%) said they followed these stories “very closely”. This number rose to 62% in the West.

But the top Washington story was the proposed reform of the Social Security system rather than one of the scandals dogging each party. Almost one-in-three (29%) Americans said they followed the Social Security reform story very closely. Current beneficiaries followed the story much more closely than younger people — fully half of those over age 65 paid very close attention, compared to only 16% of those under 30, and 22% of those aged 30 to 50 — despite the fact that reform proposals are aimed at ensuring that the Social Security system is still viable when younger generations retire.

Clinton’s current Cabinet selections and high level appointments failed to attract as much interest as his first term choices did. Two-thirds of the public (66%) said they followed these appointments very closely or fairly closely in January 1993 compared to slightly less than half now (47%).

About half of Americans followed closely stories about the new content-based television rating system which took effect on network television at the start of the year. Women followed the TV ratings story slightly more than men (51% very or fairly closely vs. 42% of men), and parents more than non-parents (52% compared to 44% of non-parents). Parents with younger children (under age 8) were more likely than those with older kids to follow the TV ratings story closely.

One-in-five Americans (22%) followed very closely the controversy over treating black English or Ebonics as a second language. African-Americans were more likely than whites to say they followed it very closely (31% compared to 21%).

Least interest was shown in foreign news stories. The hostage crisis in Peru was followed very closely by only 14% of the public, renewed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in Hebron by 12%, the ongoing protests against Serbian President Milosevic in Belgrade by 7%, and the debate over possible NATO expansion into Eastern Europe by 5%.

Trust in Government!!

With the era of big government waning, the public expresses a good deal of trust and confidence in the ability of state governments to carry out their responsibilities. Seven-in-ten Pew respondents said they have either a great deal (17%) or a fair amount (53%) of trust and confidence in their own state government, up significantly from 51% in June of 1992 and similar to the high marks given state government ten years ago, amid Ronald Reagan’s federalism initiatives.

Strong trust in state government is evident among most demographic groups, with a few important exceptions. Blacks expressed lower levels of trust than whites (51% vs. 72%). Those with annual incomes under $20,000 — many of whom may have benefited from the federal safety net — were also less trusting (61% vs. 70% of all respondents). Predictably, Republicans, who tend to favor devolution, are more trusting of state government than are Democrats (78% vs. 66%).

In general, trust in state government is more often based on things people have heard or read than on personal experiences (58% vs. 29%). However, those who are less trusting of state government more often based their opinion on personal experience than did those who are more trusting. Almost four-in-ten of the respondents distrustful of government attributed their lack of trust to things they have personally experienced.

When asked which level of government they had the most trust and confidence in to handle various social programs and policy issues, the public expressed clear preferences in some areas and ambivalence in others. Strong majorities expressed confidence in the federal government’s ability to provide services to immigrants (62%, vs. 19% state and 11% local) and protect civil rights (59%, vs. 21% state and 13% local). The federal government was also seen as being marginally more effective in providing health care for the disabled, poor and elderly (44% vs. 36% state).

State governments were seen as better able to handle job training (45% vs. 20% federal), rules on the dissemination of welfare benefits (44% vs. 28% federal), and early education for low income children — a responsibility now handled by the federal government through the Head Start program. The public has more trust and confidence in local government than in state and federal government to fight crime. More than four-in-ten chose local government as best able to handle this issue.

Optimism About TV Ratings

Fully 75% of Americans said there is too much violence on television programs today, and by a margin of nearly two-to-one they are more concerned about violence than sex on TV.

The public is optimistic that the new television ratings system will help parents decide which television shows their children should be allowed to watch. Twenty-seven percent said the new ratings will be very helpful, another 42% said somewhat helpful. However, only half of the public said they now understand how the ratings system works (21% understand very well, 30% fairly well). Four-in-ten adults have already seen the rating for a specific show, while more than half (54%) have not yet noticed ratings on any of the shows they have been watching.

Parents were more likely than non-parents to report having seen the rating for a particular show (52% vs. 37%, respectively). Parents of young children — under the age of 8 — more often reported having seen a rating than did parents of older kids. Women were as likely as men to have seen the ratings firsthand, but were more optimistic about the potential for the new system to help parents discriminate among TV programs (34% very helpful vs. 20% among men).

When asked how often they monitor their children’s TV time, 44% of parents said they always or usually watch television with their youngsters. Almost one-third (31%) said they watch with their kids half the time, 16% said sometimes, and 8% said hardly ever or never. Women reported watching TV with their children at a much higher rate than men — 54% watch always or usually compared to 34% of men. Not surprisingly, many more parents of children under 8 said they watch TV with their kids (54%) than did parents with older kids (39%).

While many parents said they often do not watch TV with their children, most said they do monitor which shows their children are watching when they are not present. Nearly three out of four parents (73%) said when their children are watching TV without them, they always (18%) or usually (55%) know what their kids are watching. Again, parents of young children (under 8) reported keeping closer tabs on what their kids are watching when they are not present. One-in-four volunteered that they always know what their kids are watching, compared to 12% of parents with kids 8 and older.

About half of the parents surveyed (46%) said their families have specific rules about the times of day their children can watch TV. Just over half (53%) said they have no such rules.

Parents expressed high levels of concern over their children’s exposure to violent content, sexual content and adult language on TV. Fifty-four percent expressed a great deal of concern about their children seeing violence and sex on TV, another 25% said they were somewhat concerned. A nearly equal percentage (51%) voiced their concern about exposure to adult language.

In Their Own Words

Respondents were asked to tell us what one word best described their reaction to Clinton’s starting a second term in office and to name the most important news event of 1996.