August 16, 2007

Few Interested in Bonds’ Home Run Record

Press Gets Good Marks for Disaster Coverage

Summary of Findings

While Barry Bonds’ 756th career home run broke one of baseball’s long standing records, it was a non-event for many Americans. Just 12% followed the story very closely, while a 42% plurality did not follow the story at all closely.

Bonds’ record received significantly less public attention than the last home run milestone to fall, Roger Maris’ single season record of 61 homers. Nearly three times as many Americans (33%) followed Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s quest for this record in September 1998, which McGwire broke in that season. Bonds set a new single-season high in the 2001 season.

Public interest in Bonds’ achievement varies by race — unlike the McGwire-Sosa chase in 1998. While 27% of African Americans followed Bonds’ record-breaking home run very closely, just 10% of whites gave it the same level of attention. Meanwhile, whites were twice as likely as blacks (44% vs. 22%) to say they gave the story virtually no attention. This stands in stark contrast to the high levels of attention to the McGwire-Sosa chase in 1998, which was followed very closely by 26% of blacks and 35% of whites.

And as is often the case for sports news, more men than women followed reports about Bonds’ record (16% vs. 8% following very closely). A similar gender gap was found in following the 1998 home run record.

Utah Miners Top News Interest

The collapse of Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine that trapped six mine workers and led to a major rescue effort topped the public’s news interest last week. Overall, nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) said it was the story they followed more closely than any other. The coal mining accident shared the public’s attention for the most closely followed story of the week with the war in Iraq (16% most closely) and the 2008 presidential campaign (11%). U.S. economic conditions (9%), hot weather (8%), and the Barry Bonds record (7%) each was cited by fewer than one-in-ten Americans.

Reports on the Utah coal mine did not dominate the public’s news interests to the same degree as the Minneapolis bridge disaster from the week before. Public interest in both stories was quite high — 36% reported following the mining disaster very closely, compared with 41% who followed the bridge collapse very closely the previous week. But while nearly half of the public (48%) cited the bridge collapse as their top story the week after it occurred, just 28% listed the mine collapse as their top story this past week.

This may reflect the fact that news organizations devoted less coverage to the mine collapse than to the bridge disaster. While the bridge collapse took up 25% of the newshole in the first week of August, and as much as 41% in the days immediately following the collapse, the Utah mine collapse consumed 13% of the newshole this past week, according to figures from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Reports about the 2008 campaign topped the news agenda this week.

The Utah mine also attracted less interest than a similar coal mining accident in West Virginia that killed 12 workers in January 2006. Close to half of the public (47%) followed the West Virginia coal miners very closely, compared with 36% who very closely followed last week’s coverage in Utah.

Steady Interest in Campaign ’08 and Iraq War

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, press coverage of the presidential campaign reached its high for the year during the week of Aug. 5-10, accounting for 16% of the newshole. Significant portions of the campaign stories were devoted to three presidential debates — one Republican and two Democrat — and the run-up to the Republican Iowa straw poll. Despite the flurry of campaign coverage, interest in the 2008 presidential race increased only slightly from the previous week, up four percentage points from 19% to 23% following campaign news very closely.

And while the war in Iraq received less coverage last week than is often the case (5% of the newshole), fully 36% of Americans reported following Iraq news very closely, up from 29% in the previous week.

As often happens with stories about the weather, many Americans paid close attention to news about the nation’s heat wave last week. One-third of the public (33%) followed news about hot weather and its impact on the country very closely, comparable to the proportion who followed the cold winter weather very closely in early February (36%).

Few Criticize Press Coverage of Recent Disasters

The public has given notably favorable grades to the press for how it has covered both recent disasters that have topped the news — the collapse of the bridge in Minnesota and the collapse of the coal mine in Utah. When asked whether the press is giving too much, too little or the right amount of coverage to these stories, clear majorities in both cases (64% for the bridge coverage, 63% for the mine coverage) say the volume of coverage was appropriate. Relatively few (23% and 16%, respectively) criticized the press for going overboard in either instance.

This stands in stark contrast to how Americans judged coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in April of this year, when half said the press gave too much coverage to the story, and just 40% said the right amount. While each story is unique, the public’s assessment in that instance also reflected the fact that 51% of the newshole was devoted to the Virginia Tech shootings in the week after the tragedy — a far higher concentration than either the Minnesota bridge collapse or the coal mine collapse received.

Names in the News

When asked to name the person they have heard the most about in the news lately, about a third of Americans (32%) cite President Bush. Bush’s overall visibility is on par with previous measures throughout the year. As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, the percentage of Americans naming one of the candidates as the person they have heard the most about is rising. Collectively, four of the leading candidates were named as the most visible person in the news by 14% of Americans (Hillary Clinton by 8%; Barack Obama by 4%; and Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani by 1% each). The substantially greater visibility of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is consistent with a different version of this question that asks respondents which candidate they have heard the most about in the news; by this measure, Clinton and Obama eclipse the field in terms of overall visibility (See July 26, 2007: Hillary Clinton Most Visible Presidential Candidate).

Hollywood celebrities continue to populate the list of most visible news figures — 5% say they have heard more about actress Lindsay Lohan than anybody else recently, another 5% name Paris Hilton, while 3% name Britney Spears. Together, these three celebrities (13%) are mentioned about as often as the four leading presidential candidates (14%). Sports stars Barry Bonds (4%), Michael Vick (2%) and Tiger Woods (1%) also were mentioned.

Overall, just 2% cite departing presidential political adviser Karl Rove as the person they have heard most about. But in polling conducted Aug. 13, after Rove said he would step down, 8% cited Rove as the person they have heard most about in the news.

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.