April 25, 2007

Widespread Interest in Virginia Tech Shootings

But Public Paid Closer Attention to Columbine

Summary of Findings

The shootings at Virginia Tech University overshadowed all other news stories last week – both in terms of coverage and public interest. Fully 45% of Americans paid very close attention to the tragedy and 56% said it was the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. However, interest in the Virginia Tech shootings was considerably lower than interest in the Columbine High School shootings which occurred almost exactly eight years earlier. More than two-thirds of Americans (68%) paid very close attention to the Columbine incident. Interest in the Virginia Tech shootings was on a par with school shootings that took place in the fall of 2006 (including the shooting at an Amish school house in Pennsylvania), as well as the 1998 shootings at a middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas and a high school in Springfield Oregon.

In a busy news week, the public’s focus was primarily on the events in Blacksburg, Virginia. While interest in the situation in Iraq was substantial, the war did not dominate the public’s attention this past week as it has throughout most of the year. Only 13% said they followed the events in Iraq more closely than any other news story. Neither Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s testimony before Congress concerning the firing of eight U.S. attorneys nor the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling put a dent in the Virginia Tech audience. Only 4% of the public named either of these stories as the one they followed most closely last week.

The Virginia Tech shootings attracted more public interest and received more news coverage than any other story this year. Fully 51% of all news coverage for the week was devoted to the Virginia Tech shootings and its aftermath. Cable news led the way devoting 76% of its coverage to the story. More than 60% of network television news focused on this story, as did half of all radio news. The public relied mainly on television for news about the shootings: 36% say their main source of information about the story was cable news and another 32% say they relied primarily on network TV news. The Internet was the main source of news on the shootings for 11% of the public, while 9% relied mainly on newspapers and another 9% relied on radio.

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.

Mixed Reactions to Media Coverage

Overall, the press receives positive ratings for its coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech. Two-thirds of the public says the press has done an excellent (23%) or good (43%) job in covering the story. Three-in-ten say the press has done only a fair (20%) or poor (10%) job. Nonetheless, half of the public believes the Virginia Tech story has been over-covered, while 40% say it has gotten the right amount of coverage. Only 6% say the story has received too little coverage. The public had a similar reaction to coverage of the Columbine shootings eight years ago – 45% of the public said the media had given that story too much coverage, and 48% said it had received about the right amount of coverage.

The vast majority of Americans (69%) have seen the pictures and video of the Virginia Tech shooter that he himself sent to NBC news. The public is divided as to whether or not NBC news made the right decision releasing and broadcasting these materials: 49% approve of NBC’s decision, 41% disapprove.

As is often the case, evaluations of press coverage of the shootings differ substantially along party lines. Republicans are slightly more critical of the job the media has done in covering the story and they are more likely to say the story has received too much coverage. The biggest partisan gap is on the question of what NBC news should have done with the materials from the shooter. A 53% majority of Republicans disapprove of NBC’s decision to broadcast and release the pictures and video. Among Democrats, a 58% majority approves of NBC’s actions.

Not only are more Republicans more critical of the media’s coverage of the shootings, they were also less likely to closely follow the story in the news (40% of Republicans vs. 55% of Democrats followed very closely). Women were somewhat more interested in the story than were men – 50% of women followed it very closely vs. 41% of men. Blacks followed the story more closely than did whites (66% vs. 44%, respectively, followed very closely). The shootings were not a regional story. Those living in the northeast, the south and the north central region paid equally close attention to the story. The one exception is the west where only 30% followed the story very closely.

Iraq, Gonzales and Other News

In other news this week, 28% of the public paid very close attention to the situation in Iraq, while 22% closely followed the debate in Washington about Iraq policy. Interest in the 2008 presidential campaign was unchanged from the previous week – 18% followed news about the candidates very closely, and another 28% followed campaign news fairly closely. Democrats continue to follow the campaign more closely than Republicans.

In spite of Gonzales’s long-awaited testimony, fewer than 20% of the public paid very close attention to the continuing saga surrounding why eight U.S. attorneys were fired by the Justice Department. This is another story Democrats have consistently followed more closely than Republicans. This past week 27% of Democrats vs. 11% of Republicans paid very close attention to the story.

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act was followed very closely by 21% of the public. Though the ruling may have been overshadowed in part by the events at Virginia Tech, public interest was not far below that of other abortion rulings by the Court over the past 10-20 years. When the Court ruled in 2000 that a Nebraska law banning late-term abortion was unconstitutional, only 15% of the public followed the decision very closely. However, 28% of the public paid very close attention to the Court’s deliberations on Pennsylvania abortion restrictions in 1992. The Court’s ruling in the 1989 Webster case attracted much more public interest – 47% followed that decision very closely. Women paid slightly more attention to last week’s abortion ruling than did men. Democrats and Republicans followed the story in about equal proportions.

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.