December 19, 2007

Gas Prices, Disasters Top Public’s News Interests In 2007

Summary of Findings

Man-made and natural disasters dominated the list of the public’s top news stories in 2007. Nearly half of Americans (45%) tracked news about the shootings of 33 students at Virginia Tech University very closely, while nearly as many paid very close attention to reports on the Minneapolis bridge collapse and the California wildfires.

As was the case in 2006, however, the rising price of gasoline attracted the largest audience of any news story. In May, 52% of Americans said they tracked rising prices at the pump very closely.

The Iraq war also continued to be a major story in 2007, though public interest in the war peaked early in the year and then fell noticeably. In early January, 40% followed news of President Bush’s troop surge very closely, while about the same proportion paid very close attention to reports on the situation in Iraq. By December, just 28% on average paid very close attention to news about Iraq.

Comparing News Coverage and Audience Interest

This year, for the first time, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press tracked public interest in the news on a weekly basis. The weekly News Interest Index was paired with the News Coverage Index, an initiative of The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which monitors the amount of news coverage devoted to major stories by newspapers, television, radio and online news outlets.

The news story that received the greatest amount of coverage in any given week this year was the Virginia Tech shootings. For the week of April 15-20, coverage of the tragedy in Blacksburg, Virginia accounted for 51% of the entire national newshole. No other story came close to attracting that amount of coverage in a single week.

The California wildfires were the second most heavily covered story, receiving 38% of the coverage the week of October 21-26. The Iraq policy debate accounted for 36% of the national news coverage the week of September 9-14. This included coverage of Gen. David Petraeus’ status report on Iraq and testimony before Congress.

Coverage Lagged Interest: Iraq Vets and Product Recalls

Many of the news stories that received the most coverage also ranked near the top of the list in public interest, including Virginia Tech, the California wildfires and the Minnesota bridge collapse. Yet there also were a number of instances when public interest surpassed news coverage, or vice versa.

News about rising gas prices received relatively little coverage but still registered strongly with the public. During the week of May 20-25, 52% said they followed rising gas prices very closely (the highest percentage for any story in 2007), while 27% said it was the story that week they followed most closely.

But just 4% of news coverage that week was devoted to reports on gas prices. More than twice as much news coverage that week was devoted to immigration (10%), the Iraq policy debate (10%), and the situation in Iraq (9%); each of these stories drew less public interest than did rising gas prices.

The story of poor treatment for Iraqi troops recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center also struck a nerve with the public, but received only modest news coverage. During the week of March 4, 20% of Americans cited Walter Reed as their most closely followed story of the week, trailing only the situation in Iraq (27% most closely).

After the Washington Post exposed the shabby treatment for veterans at Walter Reed, other news organizations followed suit. During the week of March 4, 6% of news coverage was devoted to the story. That same week, the war in Iraq (15%) and the verdict in the trial of former White House aide Scooter Libby (13%) received far more coverage. The Libby story drew approximately twice as much coverage as Walter Reed (13% vs. 6%), but just 6% of the public cited the Libby case as that week’s top story compared with 20% for Walter Reed. In that same week, 24% of the public said the Walter Reed story was receiving too little coverage from the media, only 4% thought it had been overcovered.

The pet food recall in late April attracted a significant amount of public interest: 17% listed this as their most closely followed story of the week, though the news media devoted just 1% of its overall coverage to this story. Another recall story followed a similar pattern. When Chinese-made toys were recalled in early November, 15% of the public said this was the story they were following most closely. Women were particularly interested in this story, with 23% listing it as their top story. The media devoted 2% of its coverage to the story.

News about the dangers of an antibiotic-resistant staph infection topped the news interest index the week of October 14. Fully 18% of the public listed this as their most closely followed story of the week, again women followed the story much more closely than men. Coverage of this story accounted for 3% of the national newshole.

News Interest Lagged Coverage: Petraeus and Pakistan

The stories that received extensive news coverage but failed to engage the public mainly dealt with either Washington news or overseas developments.

Perhaps the biggest disconnect involved the release of Petraeus’ status report on the war in Iraq. The week that Petraeus delivered his report and testified in front of Congress (Sept. 9-14), the media devoted 36% of its overall coverage to the Iraq policy debate. That made it one of the most heavily covered stories of the year, behind only Virginia Tech and the California wildfires, and slightly above President Bush’s troop surge announcement (34% during week of Jan. 7-12).

Petraeus’s report drew substantial interest, but as many people cited the 2008 campaign as their most closely followed story for the week as mentioned the Petraeus report (14% each). Nearly as many cited the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks as that week’s top story (11%).

Two Washington-based stories that generated a great deal of media coverage but attracted relatively small news audiences were the verdict in the Scooter Libby trial and the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department, which led to the eventual resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In the early weeks of the U.S. attorney scandal, the media devoted a great deal of attention to the story. The week of March 11 it was the most heavily covered story (taking up 16% of the overall newshole); during the week of March 18 it was the second most heavily covered story (18%). The public gave the story a much lower priority each of those weeks.

International news stories that failed at attract a large news audience included negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in February, violence in Lebanon in May, political instability in Pakistan in November, and the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, MD, also in November.

Iraq War Less Dominant

During the first half of 2007, news about the Iraq war was the public’s most closely followed news story in 18 out of 23 weeks of polling. Iraq reached its high point for the year in terms of public interest in late January, when 39% said that they were following news about the war more closely than any other story that week.

There were only five weeks when Iraq was not the top weekly story through the first six months of the year. The Virginia Tech shootings, gas prices, attempted car bombings in Britain and the release of British hostages held by Iran were the only stories to supplant the war in Iraq as the top weekly story during this period.

However, Iraq was a less dominant story from July through December. Iraq was the public’s top weekly story 11 times during the subsequent 23 weeks of polling. Notably, the Iraq war has not been the top weekly story since the middle of October (Oct. 7-12).

During the second half of the year, the war was supplanted as the week’s top story by big news items, such as the California wildfires and the Minnesota bridge collapse; but also by stories that received only modest press coverage. For instance, news about a mall shooting in Omaha received only 7% of the total news coverage, but was the most closely followed story of the week for 26% of Americans. The Iraq war was not among the public’s top two stories that week; behind both the Omaha shooting and the 2008 presidential campaign.

Over the course of the year, the percentage of Americans following news about events in Iraq has declined gradually. In January, close to 40% of the public was paying very close attention to events in Iraq, by June the number was closer to 30%, and in the last six weeks, it has gone below 30%. Throughout the year, the public has paid closer attention to events on the ground in Iraq than to the debate in Washington over Iraq policy. The media’s focus has been the reverse, with more coverage consistently devoted to the policy debate than to events in Iraq.

News coverage of Iraq, like public interest about the situation there, has declined since the beginning of the year. In January, 26% of the national newshole was devoted to news about Iraq. By contrast, during the past four weeks, the news media has devoted on average less than 4% of its the coverage to the war.

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.