June 25, 2008

Interest in Floods Increases, Still Lower than for ’93 Deluge

Government's Response to Floods Faulted

Summary of Findings

As the floods in the Midwest continued to devastate parts of that region, public interest in the story increased moderately last week, but still remained significantly lower than interest in the massive floods that struck the region in 1993.

Roughly four-in-ten (39%) followed the floods in the Midwest very closely, up from 34% a week earlier. The floods were the public’s top story last week with twice as many people citing the floods as their most closely followed story than cited the presidential campaign (38% vs. 19%). By contrast, news organizations devoted somewhat more coverage to the campaign than to the flooding. Still, public interest in Midwestern flooding is far lower than it was for the region’s historic 1993 floods. In August 1993, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) followed the flooding very closely.

The public is largely satisfied with the amount of media coverage the Midwest floods have received. Fully 72% say that news organizations have been giving the right amount of coverage to the floods. Another 17% thought that the floods were under-covered and just 9% found the coverage excessive

There is much less satisfaction with the federal government’s response to the floods. Only about a third of the public (34%) say the federal government has done an excellent or good job in responding to the floods, which is on par with the public’s low ratings for the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (38% excellent or good). By contrast, a solid majority (58%) gave positive marks to the federal government’s response to last autumn’s California wildfires.

Democrats are much more critical than Republicans of the federal government’s response to the floods. Just a quarter of Democrats say the response has been excellent or good while 64% say it has been only fair or poor. A plurality of Republicans (47%) rate the federal government’s efforts positively, while 38% rate them as only fair or poor.

The public gives higher marks for the response of state and local governments to the flooding with a narrow majority (51%) saying they have done an excellent or good job. That is higher than the public’s ratings for how state and local governments handled Katrina (41% positive) but lower than the positive marks for the response to the California wildfires (76% excellent or good).

The critical view of the federal government’s response to the Midwest floods is consistent with a broader trend of declining ratings for the government more generally. According to a People-Press survey in May, overall favorability ratings for the federal government have fallen precipitously over the past year. The survey found that only 37% of Americans hold a favorable view of the federal government, while 58% express an unfavorable opinion. Ratings for state and local governments have remained much more stable. [See “Federal Government’s Favorable Ratings Slump” released May 14, 2008 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.]

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 16-22 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected June 20-23 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

Campaign News Interest Slips

The national news media devoted more coverage to the presidential campaign last week than to the Midwest flooding, even as the public expressed greater interest in the floods. Less than three-in-ten (28%) followed news about the campaign very closely, down from 35% the previous week. Roughly one-in-five (19%) listed the campaign as their most close followed news story.

Coverage of the campaign accounted for nearly a quarter of the national newshole (23%), which was little changed from the previous week (24%). Coverage of the Midwestern floods increased, from 10% the previous week to 16%, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) News Coverage Index.

In other news last week, 25% of the public paid very close attention to news about the current situation in Iraq, with 11% listing this as their top news story. There was moderate public interest in the recent events in Afghanistan: 20% followed the military efforts against Taliban fighters very closely and 4% listed this as their most closely followed story. The national media devoted 4% of its coverage to events in Iraq and 3% to news about the violence in Afghanistan.

As the state of California began implementing a court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry, 22% of the public paid very close attention to this story. Relatively few Americans (15%) closely followed news about Congress’s vote to expand government powers for eavesdropping on suspected terrorists.

In sport news last week, 18% of the public followed the Boston Celtics’ victory in the NBA Finals very closely, while another 17% followed this story fairly closely. Roughly the same proportion paid very close attention to news that Tiger Woods will have knee surgery following his victory in the U.S. Open. As is usually the case with sports stories, men were more likely than women to have closely followed these events.

Press Gets it Right on the Floods

While the public is satisfied with the amount of media coverage the Midwest floods have received, many Americans would like to see more coverage of the military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. A majority (55%) says the press is devoting too little coverage to the military effort in Afghanistan against Taliban fighters. Fewer than one-in-ten (7%) say that this story has received two much attention and a third (34%) say the level of coverage is about right. More Republicans than Democrats say the fighting in Afghanistan is under-covered (62% vs. 50%).

Americans are evenly divided about the amount of coverage news organizations are devoting to Iraq, with more than four-in-ten Americans (42%) saying the media has been giving too little coverage to the situation in Iraq, while 44% say the war has been receiving the right amount of coverage. Only 11% say this story has received too much attention. Opinion on coverage of Iraq is virtually unchanged from late April.

The public has mixed views about the amount of coverage the media is currently devoting to the presidential campaign: 44% say the campaign is receiving too much coverage, while 44% say the coverage is about right. In late April, when the media was devoting nearly half of the newshole to the campaign, a slight majority of Americans (51%) said the coverage was excessive.

A plurality of the public (44%) says news organizations have been giving too much coverage to the issue of same sex marriages in California. Just 12% said that news about same sex marriages has received too little media attention and 39% say the amount of coverage has been about right.

Campaign Events

Barack Obama generated more news coverage last week than did John McCain. According to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, Obama was featured in 76% of all campaign stories, while McCain was featured in 53%. The candidates shared the spotlight with their spouses last week. Michelle Obama was the focus of roughly 10% of all campaign stories, while Cindy McCain received about half as much coverage.

Four-in-ten Americans heard a lot about John McCain’s proposal to lift the federal ban on oil drilling along coastal waters, another 42% heard a little about this. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to have heard about McCain’s proposal (89% vs. 76% heard a lot or a little).

The public was equally aware of Barack Obama’s decision to forgo public financing for his presidential campaign. Although the decision was announced late in the week, 40% of the public heard a lot about this and another 37% heard a little.

Three-in-ten (29%) heard a lot about Michelle Obama’s appearance on the daytime TV show The View. Another 31% heard a little about this and 40% heard nothing at all. Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to have heard a lot about Mrs. Obama’s television appearance, and there was no significant difference in awareness between men and women.

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.