May 22, 2008

Foreign Disasters Attract Interest Despite Modest Coverage

Cable News Out of Sync With Public Interest in Campaign

Summary of Findings

The American public expressed strong news interest in the earthquake in China last week even as the news media remained heavily focused on the presidential campaign. In spite of modest coverage of both the earthquake in China and the cyclone that hit Burma, the public had a fairly good sense of the magnitude of both disasters.

About one-in-five Americans (22%) say they followed news about the earthquake in China more closely than any other story last week, which is about the same percentage citing the presidential campaign as their top story (20%). By contrast, news organizations devoted much more coverage to the campaign – 37% of all news coverage – than to the China disaster (13%).

News about gas prices, which barely appeared on the news media’s radar, was the public’s top story. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) say they followed reports about rising gas prices more closely than any other story last week.

There were dramatic differences in coverage across media sectors last week. Cable TV news focused on the campaign almost to the exclusion of other top news stories. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) News Coverage Index, national cable TV news outlets devoted 74% of their coverage last week to the campaign and only 4% to the Chinese earthquake. By contrast, network TV news and national newspapers split their coverage about equally between these two stories.

Throughout the year, cable news has consistently devoted more coverage to the presidential campaign than have other news sources. And cable news coverage of the campaign has typically exceeded the public’s interest in the election.

Last week represented one of the largest gaps between cable coverage of the campaign and public interest in the race. While cable networks devoted 74% of their coverage to the campaign, only 20% of the public listed the campaign as the single news story they followed most closely.

Interest in the campaign declined from 30% the previous week, and is down substantially from earlier in the campaign. In mid-February (Feb. 11-17), 46% cited the presidential campaign as their top news story, more than double the percentage last week.

Public Awareness of International Tragedies

Though the final death toll for the Burma cyclone is not yet known, most news organizations and relief agencies are estimating it will reach or surpass 100,000. More than a third of the public (36%) said the death toll was estimated to be around 100,000 and another 17% said it was around 50,000. In addition, fully 63% of the public knew that Burma was located in Southeast Asia.

Similarly, 52% of the public came close to estimating the number of deaths in China. A week after the earthquake the confirmed death toll stands at roughly 34,000, and the government estimates the final number of victims could surpass 50,000. Three-in-ten Americans (29%) said that around 25,000 people had died and 23% said it was around 50,000.

Edwards Endorsement a Minor Event

On the campaign trail, a third of the public heard a lot about John Edwards endorsing Barack Obama for president. Another 46% heard a little about the endorsement and 21% heard nothing at all about it. Among Democrats 44% heard a lot about Edwards’ endorsement. Public awareness of the Edwards endorsement was relatively low compared with other recent campaign events. More than half of the public (52%) heard a lot about Obama’s controversial statement last month that some small-town Americans cling to guns and religion during tough economic times.

News organizations devoted a good deal of coverage to Edwards’ endorsement. According to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, Edwards actually attracted more media attention last week than he did the week he dropped out of the Democratic primary race. Edwards was featured prominently in 10% of all campaign coverage last week.

About three-in-ten (29%) say they heard a lot about George Bush’s speech before the Israeli Knesset, during which he criticized unnamed leaders who would negotiate with terrorists or radicals. Another 36% heard a little about Bush’s speech, while 34% heard nothing at all. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to have heard at least a little about the speech. Bush’s speech brought a strong reaction from Obama, who viewed as an attack on his approach to foreign policy.

John McCain continues to lag behind Obama and Clinton in terms of media coverage and public visibility. While news coverage of McCain was up significantly last week, only a small minority of Americans (17%) heard a lot about McCain’s speech outlining his plans for his presidency, including his prediction that most American troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by 2013. Some 45% heard a little about the speech and 37% heard nothing at all. Only 22% of Republicans heard a lot about the speech.

Although Clinton was the big winner last week, beating Obama in the West Virginia Democratic primary by a substantial margin, Obama was the most visible presidential candidate in the eyes of the public. About six-in-ten (59%) said the Illinois senator was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news recently while 25% named Clinton and only 4% named McCain. A solid majority of Americans (64%) correctly identified Clinton as the winner in West Virginia, though somewhat more (79%) knew that she won the Pennsylvania primary in late April.

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 May 12-18 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected May 16-19 from a nationally representative sample of 1,009 adults.

Gas Prices Top News Interest Once Again

In other news last week the rising price of gas was by far the public’s most closely followed news story. Nearly two-thirds of the public (64%) reported following the rising price of gas very closely, while 31% named it as their top story of the week. Interest in rising gas prices has remained high in recent weeks (63% very closely during May 2-5).

About one-in-five Americans (19%) paid very close attention to the decision by the California Supreme Court giving same-sex couples the right to marry; just 5% cited this as their top story of the week. News organizations devoted 3% of all coverage to the decision.

George Bush’s second trip to the Middle East this year attracted relatively little public interest: 12% followed the story very closely, while 3% listed it as the story they followed most closely.

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.

Cite this publication: “Foreign Disasters Attract Interest Despite Modest Coverage.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 22, 2008) http://www.people-press.org/2008/05/22/foreign-disasters-attract-interest-despite-modest-coverage/, accessed on July 23, 2014.