June 19, 2008

Gas Prices Dominate the Public’s Economic News Agenda

Fewer Following Midwest Floods than in 1993

Summary of Findings

The public continues to express strong interest in news about the economy. More than four-in-ten (42%) tracked economic news very closely last week, only slightly below the 45% who tracked news about the economy very closely in mid-March, which was a 15-year high. And while several specific economic and financial news stories have been on the public’s radar, none has been as dominant as the rising price of gas and oil.

When asked in an open-ended format to name the economic or financial problem they have been hearing the most about in the news lately, fully 72% of Americans point to gas and oil prices. No other issue comes close. The housing and mortgage crisis is a distant second with 11% of the public naming this as the economic issue they have been hearing the most about.

This represents a dramatic shift since January, when just 7% named gas prices as the economic story they had heard most about, while more than four times as many (31%) cited the housing crisis. The possibility of a recession was another frequently mentioned response in January: 14% named this as the issue they had been hearing the most about. Currently, only 1% cite a recession as the issue they’ve been hearing the most about.

The public’s increased interest in rising gas and energy prices also is reflected in the larger percentage of Americans who say they follow this news regularly, not just when there are major headlines. More than eight-in-ten Americans (82%) report that they now follow news about gas and energy prices pretty regularly, up from 69% in August 2007.

However, the public also expresses greater interest in news about the price of food and other consumer goods, health care costs, jobs and housing than last summer. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say they follow news about the price of food and other consumer goods pretty regularly – up 16 points since August 2007 – while 50% say they regularly follow news about the housing market. Last summer only 37% said they regularly followed news about housing.

More than half of Americans (54%) say they follow news about health care costs pretty regularly, not just when there are major headlines; nearly as many (52%) follow news about jobs pretty regularly, up from 40% last year. Interest in international economic news, while lower than for other financial stories, also has increased since last August (from 28% to 36%).

That is not the case, however, for news about the stock market. Just 35% say the follow news about the stock market pretty regularly – and not only when major news occurs – which is unchanged from August 2007.

The public’s interest in pocketbook issues, such as fuel and food prices is broad based, appealing to Americans across various educational and income groups. More than eight-in-ten college graduates (84%), people with some college education (81%), and those with no college experience (81%) report following news about gas and energy prices regularly. The same is true of those with annual household income under $30,000 and those earning more than $75,000 for whom roughly equal proportions regularly follow news about gas prices. Similarly, strong majorities of high, middle and low income Americans regularly follow news about the price of food and other consumer goods.

For some other types of economic news, such as financial news from around the world and news about the stock market there is a smaller audience overall and the appeal is greater among more affluent, more highly-educated Americans. Among college graduates, roughly half (49%) regularly follow news about the stock market compared with just 20% of those who have never attended college. More than four-in-ten Americans (46%) with household incomes of $75,000 or more follow news about the stock market regularly. This compares with just 25% of those with annual incomes under $50,000. The same education and income patterns can be seen for news about the global economy.

The national news media has devoted substantial coverage to the economy and rising gas and oil prices this year, although it has been overshadowed by coverage of the presidential campaign. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) News Content Index, from January 1 through May 30, news about the U.S. economy and rising gas and oil prices has comprised 8% of the national newshole. Over the same period, 39% of all news coverage was devoted to the campaign. Nonetheless, news about the economy and gas prices has received twice as much coverage as has news about Iraq – including both events on the ground and the Iraq policy debate – from the beginning of the year through the end of May.

Rating Economic Coverage

The public gives the press mixed grades for accurately reporting the state of the U.S. economy. A plurality (48%) says the news reports about the economy are showing the situation about the way it really is. A third (34%) say the media is making the economy seem worse than it really is, and 14% say the media is making conditions seem better than they actually are.

There are sharp partisan differences over how the media has reported on economic conditions. While a strong majority of Democrats (59%) say news reports are portraying the situation accurately, an equally large proportion of Republicans (57%) say the media is making the economy seem worse than it actually it. Independents come closer to Democrats in their views on this matter, with a 47% plurality saying news about the economy is showing the situation about the way it really is.

The Campaign and the Economy

When asked how much they have heard about the candidates’ positions on various economic issues, gas and oil prices again top the list. Fully 56% of the public has heard a lot about the candidates’ positions on this issue.

Nearly half (46%) say they have heard a lot about the candidates’ positions on taxes, while 43% have heard a lot about the candidates’ positions on health care reform.

However, just 35% have heard a lot about the candidates’ positions on the job situation – an issue that has attracted increased public interest. Similarly, 34% have heard a lot about the candidates’ positions on the rising price of food and other products; fully 69% of Americans say they follow this issue pretty regularly.

There are significant partisan gaps on some of these economic issues with Democrats more likely than Republicans to have heard a lot about where the candidates stand on the issues. More than half of Democrats (52%) have heard a lot about the candidates’ positions on health care reform. This compares with only 33% of Republicans. Among Democrats, 42% have heard a lot about the candidates’ positions on the job situation compared with 32% of Republicans.

Candidates’ Economic Positions

In general terms, most Americans think they know at least something about Barack Obama and John McCain’s positions on the economy. Yet only about a quarter of Americans (24%) say they know a great deal about where Obama stands on economic issues, while even fewer (18%) feel like they know a great deal about McCain’s positions.

Sizable minorities say they know little or nothing about where the candidates stand on the economy. Three-in-ten (31%) say they don’t know much (or anything) about Obama’s positions and 40% feel they are not well-informed about McCain’s economic plans and policies.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they know a lot about the economic positions of their party’s presumptive nominee. About a third of Democrats (34%) say they know a lot about where Obama stand on economic issues, compared with just 22% of Republicans who say the same about McCain.

Those who are following campaign news very closely know a lot more about Obama’s economic positions than they do about McCain’s positions: 43% of those who followed campaign news very closely last week said they know a lot about Obama’s positions on the economy. Among that same group, only 29% know a lot about where McCain stands on the economy.

Tracking the Campaign

With the Democratic nomination process wrapped up and the general election campaign underway, the public continued to pay close attention to campaign news last week. More than a third (35%) followed news about the presidential election very closely and another 35% paid fairly close attention. Democrats paid much closer attention to campaign news than did either Republicans or independents (45% of Democrats followed very closely vs. 30% of Republicans and independents).

Two events on the campaign trail last week did not register widely with the public. Just 28% of the public heard a lot about John McCain’s statement in a recent interview that it is not too important when U.S. troops come home from Iraq. A third of the public heard a little about this incident.

Even fewer heard a lot about the head of Barack Obama’s vice presidential search team, James Johnson, resigning from that post over questions about his personal finances: 24% heard a lot about this and 37% heard a little. Nearly four-in-ten (39%) heard nothing at all about this.

While John McCain received a considerable amount of news coverage last week, Barack Obama remains by far the more visible candidate in the eyes of the public. According to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, Obama was featured prominently in 77% of all campaign stories, while McCain was featured in 55% of campaign stories. Even so, fully 69% of the public said Obama was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news recently. This compares with only 12% who named McCain.

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 June 9-15 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected June 13-16 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

Fewer Following ’08 Floods than in 1993

In other news last week, about a third of the public (34%) followed reports about floods in the Midwest very closely; 22% listed this as their most closely followed story for the week. The presidential campaign drew comparable interest.

News about the flooding accounted for 10% of all news last week and was the leading story on network news, comprising 16% of the network TV newshole. Not surprisingly, residents of the Midwest followed this story more closely than people in other parts of the country. A majority (53%) of those living in the Midwest followed news about the floods very closely.

Public interest in the flooding fell far short of interest in a similar catastrophic flood in the region during 1993. In August of that year, fully two-thirds of Americans (65%) were very closely following news about Midwest floods.

Another weather related disaster attracted the public’s attention last week, when a tornado touched down killing four Boy Scouts at a camp in Iowa. Three-in-ten Americans (32%) followed the story very closely and 11% said this was the story they followed most closely. The media devoted 4% of all news coverage to the tragedy.

The untimely death of Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, was very closely followed by 28% of the public and 12% cited this as their most closely followed story of the week. The media devoted a substantial amount of weekend coverage to profiling Russert’s life and career following his death on Friday, June 13. In total, coverage of Tim Russert accounted for 5% of the week’s newshole.

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: “Gas Prices Dominate the Public’s Economic News Agenda.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 19, 2008) http://www.people-press.org/2008/06/19/gas-prices-dominate-the-publics-economic-news-agenda/, accessed on July 23, 2014.