October 25, 2007

Public Tunes out Ellen DeGeneres Controversy

Broad Interest, Moderate Concern over Staph Infections

Summary of Findings

News about the dangers of an antibiotic-resistant staph infection (MRSA) caught the public’s attention last week. More than a quarter of Americans paid very close attention to this story and 18% listed it as the single news story they followed more closely than any other — placing it at the top of the weekly news interest index.

The national news media covered the MRSA story, but overall coverage lagged behind public interest. Only 3% of the national newshole was devoted to this story, making it the 9th most heavily covered story of the week. The story was featured more prominently on network TV news than on other sectors.

Women followed the MRSA story more closely than men (31% vs. 21% followed very closely). More than a quarter of women (26%) listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. Men were more focused on Iraq and the presidential campaign, only 10% listed MRSA as their top story of the week.

Parents were no more likely than non-parents to pay close attention to the story, but they are slightly more worried about the potential dangers of the infection. More than half (52%) of those who have children under age 18 living in their household are very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their household will be exposed to the infection. This compares with 39% of non-parents. Among the general public, 44% are at least somewhat worried about being exposed to the infection. This is higher than the percentage who were worried about being exposed to SARS in the spring of 2003 (35% were very or somewhat worried).

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 October 14-19 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected October 19-22 from a nationally representative sample of 1,010 adults.

Iraq Interest Remains High

In other news last week, the public continued to pay close attention to the Iraq war in spite of limited press coverage. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) followed news about the war very closely and 17% listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. One-in-five (21%) paid very close attention to the Iraq policy debate, 7% listed this as their most closely followed story.

Interest in the presidential campaign was up last week from a low point the previous week. Nearly a quarter of the public (23%) followed campaign news very closely (up from 13% a week earlier) and 14% listed the campaign as their most closely followed story. The campaign was the most heavily covered news story last week, 11% of the overall newshole was devoted to campaign news.

The economy was a major news story last week, fueled in large part by the slowdown in the housing market. The national media devoted 3% of its coverage to economic news making it the 6th most heavily covered story of the week. One-in-four Americans paid very close attention to reports about the U.S. economy and 9% listed this as their most closely followed story.

The deadly bombing in Pakistan attracted the very close attention of 21% of the public. The media focused heavily on this incident. Fully 6% of the national newshole for the week was devoted to this story which didn’t break until late Thursday.

Little Interest in Ellen Controversy

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres’s controversial pet adoption and subsequent meltdown on national television generated a fair amount of news coverage last week. Overall the public expressed relatively little interest in this story. Only 5% paid very close attention and another 13% paid fairly close attention. Fully 59% said they were not following the story at all.

Most of the public says the DeGeneres story was over-covered by the media: 58% say it received too much coverage, 20% say it got the right amount of coverage and 8% say it go too little coverage. Even those who were paying fairly close attention to the story overwhelmingly said it was overblown.

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.