January 24, 2008

Housing Crisis More Visible Than Other Economic Problems

Surging Interest in Economic News

Summary of Findings

Public interest in economic news soared last week amid continued stock market volatility and concerns about a possible recession. More than four-in-ten Americans (42%) followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely and 20% listed this as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. That marks the highest level of public interest in economic news in five years. Interest was only somewhat greater during the recession of the early 1990s.

When asked what one economic or financial problem they have been hearing the most about in the news recently, a plurality of Americans point to problems with the housing market. More than three-in-ten (31%) mention the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the increasing number of home foreclosures or falling home values. This is more than twice the percentage citing any other economic problem, and more than five times the number who cited the stock market during a week when the market lost more than 500 points.

Those who have been following economic news very closely are among the most likely to list the housing situation as the problem they have been hearing the most about in the news lately. Fully 38% of those paying very close attention to economic news listed housing as the top issue in the news. This compares with 34% of those following economic news fairly closely and only 18% of those who are not following economic news closely or at all.

Fourteen percent of the public mentioned the possibility of a recession as the economic problem they had been hearing the most about in the news recently, placing it a distant second behind the housing crisis. Rising gas and oil prices were mentioned by 7% of the public. Another 6% named the stock market. George Bush’s economic stimulus plan was mentioned by 3% of the public — with equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats naming this as the economic issue they had heard the most about lately.

While news organizations devoted considerable coverage to the economy last week, economic news was far overshadowed by presidential campaign coverage. Overall, 39% of all news stories were devoted to the campaign, down from 49% a week earlier, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index. By comparison, economic news accounted for 12% of all coverage — a substantial amount, but less than a third of the coverage devoted to the campaign.

Small majorities believe that news organizations are devoting the right amount of coverage to the economy (52%) and the presidential election (51%). However, 32% say the economy has received too little coverage, compared with just 11% who say that about the campaign. Conversely, a third (33%) believes the campaign received too much coverage, compared with just 11% for the economy.

Campaign News Interest Grows

Public interest in the 2008 presidential campaign reached a new high last week, despite the decline in press coverage. Fully 36% of the public followed news about the campaign very closely, and the same percentage say it is the single story they followed most closely this past week. As recently as Nov 23-26, 2007, roughly half as many Americans (20%) reported this close attention to the campaign. This is the highest level of interest recorded during this campaign cycle, and it is comparable to the percent of Americans who were closely following campaign news in March 2004 (35%) — after that year’s “Super Tuesday” Democratic primaries.

While Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama drew more coverage than the leading GOP candidates, the Republicans edged out the Democrats in overall coverage (44%-40%). In spite of the fact that Clinton and Obama received almost the same amount of campaign news coverage, Clinton once again led in terms of public visibility. Four-in-ten Americans (40%) named Clinton as the candidate they had heard the most about in the news recently, while 29% named Obama. The leading Republican candidates continue to trail far behind the Democratic candidates in this regard. Just 5% each named John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney as the candidates they heard the most about, which is largely unchanged from the previous week.

Other Stories

In other news last week, 22% of Americans followed news about the search for the killer of a pregnant Marine, while 16% listed this as the story they were following more closely than any other.

Roughly three-in-ten followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely, but only 7% listed this as their top story of the week. The national news media devoted a mere 1% of its overall coverage to the Iraq war last week. Bush’s trip to the Middle East drew modest public interest: 17% followed this story very closely and 3% listed it as their most closely followed story of the week.

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 Jan. 14-20 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected Jan. 18-21 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.

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.