March 8, 2007

Today’s Journalists Less Prominent

Fewer Widely Admired than 20 Years Ago

Summary of Findings

The increasingly fragmented media landscape has diminished the prominence of the nation’s top journalists. Two decades ago, the vast majority of Americans had a “favorite” journalist or news person, and the top picks were representatives of the big three broadcast television networks. Today, only a slim majority can name the journalist they admire most and the preferences are much more scattered. Reflecting the myriad choices news consumers have today, the top ten journalists named by the public are drawn from the networks, cable news channels, public television and even Comedy Central.

In another sign of the times, the internet was a major source of news about the recent downturn in the stock market. One-in-five Americans who were paying at least some attention to the stock market news say they first heard about the drop in stocks by going online. After a major market tumble in 1997 only 2% of those following the news story said they first heard about it online. Far fewer Americans got the recent news about the market from television compared to 10 years ago. Among those who were following the stock market news very closely, the internet was an even bigger source of information. Fully 29% of this group first heard about the market downturn online, only 40% heard the news on television (down from 66% in 1997).

Top Stories of the Week

Overall, the stock market was in the top tier of news stories, both in terms of public interest and news coverage during the week of Feb. 26. In a week crowded with news, the situation in Iraq maintained the top spot, as 37% of the public followed this story very closely and 30% listed it as the story they followed most closely. News about Iraq, both the policy debate and events on the ground, made up 11% of the newshole for the week. The public also paid very close attention to the deadly tornadoes in the South. Fully one-third followed this story very closely and 20% listed it as their top story. News coverage of the tornadoes, which occurred late in the week, made up 6% of the newshole.

These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s agenda. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism‘s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis.

Interest in the Anna Nicole Smith saga remained about the same last week, in spite of the fact that media coverage of the story dropped off significantly. Some 14% of the public followed the Smith story very closely (basically unchanged from 13% the previous week), and 13% listed Smith’s death when asked which story they had followed most closely. As has been the case since the story broke, younger women remain the most riveted by Smith’s story. Women under age 50 were nearly three times more likely than men in that same age group to say Smith’s death was the story they followed most closely last week (23% vs. 8%, respectively).

Other top stories of the week included the 2008 presidential campaign and the terrorist bombing in Afghanistan outside a base where Vice President Dick Cheney was staying. The campaign continues to attract more attention than the 2004 presidential contest did in its early stages. The Afghanistan bombing was followed very closely by 19% of the public; 3% said this was the story they followed most closely. News coverage of this, which went beyond the bombing to include the broader situation in Afghanistan, was substantial (4% of the newshole).

Today’s Favorite Journalists

Looking at the list of most admired journalists, no individual news person is named by more than 5% of the public. In fact, the differences among the top 3, Katie Couric, Bill O’Reilly, and Charles Gibson, are not statistically significant. In 1987 Dan Rather stood out among his colleagues with 11% of the public naming him as their favorite journalist.

Some of today’s top journalists appeal to distinct constituencies reflecting the nature of their audiences. For example, Bill O’Reilly tops the list of most admired journalists among Republicans — 10% name the Fox News Channel talk show host. Only 2% of Democrats and Independents name O’Reilly. Much of Katie Couric’s support comes from women: 7% of women name Couric as the news person they admire most compared to 2% of men. And Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, is popular mainly with young people. Among those under age 30, 6% say Stewart is their favorite journalist, making him along with O’Reilly the top pick among this age group. This compares with less than 1% of those over age 30, who admire Stewart most.

Online News Sources

When the U.S. stock market plunged over 400 points last week, Americans heard the news from a wide variety of sources. While a plurality of Americans learned about the downturn from television, the internet was a much more important source of news this year than it had been in November 1997 when stocks fell over 500 points in a day. In 1997, 59% of those who were paying at least some attention to the stock market fall first heard the news on television, this compares with 43% today. The percent of the public who heard the stock market news online increased ten-fold from 1997 to today. Roughly one-in-five (19%) heard about the market from listening to the radio (unchanged from 1997), 8% heard about it from talking to others (down slightly from 1997), and 9% heard about it by reading a newspaper (up marginally from 1997).

Among those who did hear the news on television, equal percentages cited hearing it on cable news channels and network news. A smaller percentage heard the news on their local stations. In 1997, network had a slight advantage over cable.

About the News Interest Index

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.