October 12, 2007

Too Much Celebrity News, Too Little Good News

Bush Veto Draws Large Audience

Summary of Findings

When asked about which issues, if any, get too much attention from the news media, fully 40% of the public cites celebrity news. That is more than three times the number citing any other subject. About one-in-ten Americans (12%) say the news media has devoted too much attention to the Iraq war, while 5% each mention politics generally, the presidential campaign or crime and violence.

The belief that the news media pays too much attention to celebrity news — including Hollywood gossip and stories about individual celebrities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton — is widely shared. Comparable numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents — and men and women — cite celebrity news as receiving too much news media attention. Young people are among the most likely to say there is too much celebrity coverage (47% of those under age 50 vs. 31% of those over age 50).

There is far less agreement among the public about which stories get too little attention from the news media. One-in-ten Americans say the media does not pay enough attention to good things that are happening in the country, including positive outcomes and good deeds done by average citizens. Comparable numbers say the news media devotes too little attention to the Iraq war (9%), including good news about Iraq, and to healthcare (8%).

Women are more likely than men to say good news is undercovered (13% vs. 6%). In addition, more Republicans than Democrats believe the news media focuses too little on positive news stories (16% vs. 7%).

Democrats and Republicans also have differing perspectives on other types of stories that get too little attention from the media. More Republicans than Democrats cite immigration as an issue getting too little news media attention. By contrast, more Democrats than Republicans point to the environment and poverty, as issues that get less attention from the news media.

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. In the most recent week, data relating to news coverage was collected from September 30 — October 5 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected October 5-8 from a nationally representative sample of 1,013 adults.

Iraq and Campaign Lead News Interest

In the news, the situation in Iraq and the 2008 presidential campaign were the dominant stories last week. More than a quarter of the national newshole was devoted to these stories, and roughly a third of the public listed one of these two stories as their most closely followed.

Much of the coverage of events in Iraq focused on Blackwater USA and the controversy surrounding its contractors working in Iraq. Overall, 15% of the public followed this story very closely, and 8% listed it as the story they followed most closely. By contrast, 29% of the public paid very close attention to events in Iraq and 19% listed this as their most closely followed story.

George Bush’s veto of legislation expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a story which received relatively little coverage from the national media last week, generated a good deal of public interest. Fully 27% of the public paid very close attention to this story. Democrats followed this story much more closely than Republicans: 32% of Democrats paid very close attention (vs. 21% of Republicans) and 14% of Democrats listed this as their most closely followed story of the week (vs. 8% of Republicans). The national media devoted 2% of its coverage overall to the Bush veto.

The story of a woman who was arrested in a Phoenix airport for disorderly conduct and later died in a holding room attracted modest public interest. Only 13% said they followed this story very closely, and 8% listed it as the story they followed most closely last week. The national media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to the story.

One-in-five Americans paid very close attention to the debate in Washington over U.S. policy in Iraq, down slightly from last month. Six percent of the public listed the Iraq policy debate as the story they followed most closely last week. The national media devoted 6% of its overall coverage to this story.

When asked which of the week’s top stories received too little coverage from the media, 18% of the public pointed to Bush’s veto of the health care bill; the same number (18%) said that the story of the woman who died in the Phoenix airport holding cell received too little coverage. However, about the same number (14%) said the woman’s death in the airport was overcovered; by comparison, just 4% said Bush’s veto of the children’s health bill received too much coverage.

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.