June 20, 2007

Why Change the Channel?

Summary of Findings

In spite of their general criticisms of the media, Americans have good things to say about the major broadcast and cable news networks. The public draws few distinctions among the news divisions of the big three broadcast networks. There is much less consensus about the major cable news networks. Nearly half of the public sees real differences among CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but four-in ten say the cable news outlets are all pretty much the same. National Public Radio is less well known to the public, but receives generally positive evaluations from those who can rate it.

When asked to name the one word that best describes their impression of six major news organizations, “good” is the word that comes to mind most often for each one. Beyond that, the big three broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — are most often described as “OK.” Other top descriptors for the networks include “biased,” “liberal” and “informative.”

CNN is the most recognizable news network among the six tested in the poll. Roughly 80% of respondents were able to come up with a word to describe CNN. After “good,” the most frequently used word was “informative.” The words “liberal,” “news” and “great” also made CNN’s top six list.

The Fox News cable channel is the only outlet for which “conservative” and “Republican” were mentioned. Other descriptions of Fox included “excellent,” “OK,” “biased,” and “like it.”

The top words used to describe NPR included “excellent,” and “informative.” “Liberal” was mentioned about as often in describing NPR as it was for CNN and the major broadcast networks, though “biased” was mentioned less often for NPR.

Cable Audiences Make Deliberate Choices

In general, the public sees few differences among the three broadcast networks. Fully 74% say ABC News, CBS News and NBC News are all pretty much the same. Only 18% say there are real differences between the three. But impressions of the three major cable news networks differ substantially. While 40% of the public says CNN, the Fox News cable channel and MSNBC are pretty much the same, 48% see real differences among the three.

The feeling that the three broadcast networks are all pretty much the same is shared by network and cable news viewers alike. When it comes to evaluations of the cable news networks, however, cable viewers themselves are among the most likely to draw distinctions among the three major outlets. Among regular viewers of CNN, Fox and MSNBC, roughly 60% say that real differences separate the cable news networks. This compares with 48% of the general public and 44% of regular viewers of the big three broadcast networks.

In addition, views of the cable networks differ sharply by education and partisanship. College graduates are much more likely than non-college graduates to see real differences between CNN, Fox and MSNBC. And Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see differences. Among Republicans, 57% say there are real differences among the three major cable news networks; only 33% say the cable networks are all the same. Democrats are evenly split on this issue: 45% say there are real differences, 46% say the cable networks are all the same.

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.

Iraq and Immigration Top News Interest Index

In the news this week, the public remained focused on the Iraq war while the national news media divided their time fairly evenly among a host of domestic and international issues. Three-in-ten Americans followed events in Iraq very closely last week, and fully a third listed Iraq as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. The media devoted 7% of overall coverage for the week to events on the ground in Iraq.

The most heavily covered news story of the week was the debate in Washington over a new immigration policy. Fully 10% of the newshole was devoted to this story as George Bush and congressional leaders attempted to keep the controversial reform legislation alive. The public paid fairly close attention to the immigration debate: 22% followed the story very closely and 17% said this was the story they followed more closely than any other.

Public interest in the 2008 presidential campaign remained steady last week. Despite the absence of major campaign events or debates, 17% of the public followed campaign news very closely and 10% listed this as their top story. The media devoted 7% of its overall coverage to the campaign.

The violent conflict between rival Palestinian groups was the second most heavily covered news story of the week (9% of the newshole). One-in-five Americans followed this story very closely, and 7% said it was their most closely followed story.

New developments in the U.S. attorney scandal put that story back in the media’s top tier. This was the fifth most heavily covered story of the week (3% of the newshole). The public is paying somewhat less attention to the story now than it had been in March and early April. Democrats continue to follow this story much more closely than do Republicans.

Only a small segment of the public paid close attention to the recent problems aboard the international space station — 7% followed this story very closely and 4% listed it as their top story of the week. Ten years ago when the Russian space station Mir experienced problems, the American public was somewhat more interested.

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 journalism.org.