July 9, 2008

Interest In Gas Prices Remains High

McCain Remains Much Less Visible than Obama

Summary of Findings

The public’s top story last week was the rising price of gasoline. Fully 62% of Americans followed news about gas prices very closely, and four-in-ten said it was the story they followed more closely than any other. Gas prices overshadowed the presidential campaign as the public’s most closely followed story by a substantial margin. For 15% of Americans the campaign was their top story (25% followed the campaign very closely). By contrast, the press devoted much more coverage to the campaign – 26% of all news – than to stories about rising gas prices (7%).

In addition to following news about gas prices, 22% of the public paid very close attention to the recent downturn in the stock market, 7% listed this as their most closely followed story. The public is also tracking the effect these broader economic problems are having on American businesses. More than three-quarters heard about the announcement that sales for automakers Ford and General Motors fell sharply in June – 34% heard a lot about this and 44% heard a little. Somewhat fewer heard the news that Starbucks coffee retailer plans to close 600 stores and eliminate 12,000 jobs. One-in-four heard a lot about Starbuck’s troubles and 45% heard a little. More men than women reported hearing a lot about falling sales for Ford and GM (39% vs. 30%), while men and women were equally likely to have heard a lot about closings at Starbucks.

Consumer News: High Public Interest in Food Safety

Americans are highly attentive to news about food safety and the recent case of a salmonella outbreak possibly linked to tomatoes is no exception. Two-thirds (66%) of the public reported hearing ‘a lot’ about salmonella contamination and another 28% reported hearing ‘a little’ about the outbreak. Just 6% of Americans said they had heard nothing about this. In terms of news coverage, the salmonella outbreak accounted for 1% of total news last week, somewhat less than when the story first broke in early June (2% of all news for the period of June 9-15 and 4% of network TV coverage). Other food scares have attracted considerable public interest as measured by the News Interest Index. In February, the recall of 100 million pounds of U.S. beef attracted the very close interest of three-in-ten Americans (29%). A comparable number of Americans were very closely following the recall of more than 100 brands of pet food due to possible contamination in the spring of 2007.

Despite Boost in Coverage McCain Still Far Less Visible than Obama

The competition for media exposure between Barack Obama and John McCain was much closer last week than in the past several months of the presidential campaign. During much of the primary campaign and in the weeks since the general election kicked-off in early June, Barack Obama has consistently received more media attention than his Republican rival, John McCain. By contrast last week, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index, Obama was featured prominently in 73% of all campaign news stories while McCain was featured in 62% of all stories.

Despite greater parity in the coverage devoted to each candidate, Obama remained by far the most visible candidate in the eyes of the public. Seven-in-ten Americans (71%) named Obama as the candidate they’ve been hearing the most about in the news in the past week or so. Roughly one-in-ten (11%) named John McCain as the most visible candidate in the news during this period; a number largely unchanged since early June.

In Other News

The rescue of 15 hostages held captive by Columbian rebels was the second biggest news story last week in terms of press coverage (8% of all news). Overall, 17% of the public followed news about the hostage rescue very closely and one-in-ten (11%) called it their top story. This story generated less public interest than news about British sailors held captive for two weeks by the Iranian government in the spring of 2007. Three-in-ten (31%) followed that story very closely during the first week of April, 2007.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan attracted modest public interest. Last week, one-in-four Americans followed the situation in Iraq very closely and for 8% Iraq was the story they followed most closely. Iraq coverage accounted for 3% of the all news last week. The military effort in Afghanistan was followed very closely by 19% of the public and 2% cited Afghanistan as their top story. News organizations devoted 2% of all coverage to the war in Afghanistan.

Computer software mogul Bill Gates announced last week that he would step down as CEO of the Microsoft Corporation. About one-in-ten (13%) Americans heard a lot about his decision, while most heard either a little (45%) or nothing at all (42%) about this.

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 30 – July 6 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected June 3-7 from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 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.