December 18, 2008

Blagojevich Arrest Grabs Public Attention

Gender Divide In Caylee Anthony Interest

Summary of Findings

The arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week on corruption charges drew public interest at levels rivaling or topping most national political scandals of the past few years. The charges include allegations that Blagojevich sought personal financial gain from his choice to fill President-elect Barack Obama’s senate seat.

About three-in-ten (29%) Americans say they followed the breaking scandal “very closely;” another 35% say they followed the story “fairly closely.” Only the congressional check bouncing scandal of 1992 – in which members of Congress were investigated for overdrawing their office checking accounts – and the alleged Clinton-Lewinsky affair in 1998 rated higher in terms of public interest. Roughly a third of Americans followed those stories very closely (36% and 34% respectively) when they first became public.

In comparison to other recent scandals, interest in the Blagojevich story is on par with March reports about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s involvement with a prostitute and the 2006 congressional page controversy involving former Rep. Mark Foley (26% followed each very closely). Other recent personal or political scandals, such as those involving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the firing of federal prosecutors, or Sen. Larry Craig, received less public attention.

The governor’s arrest, based on information gathered from a federal wiretap investigation, led all news coverage last week, accounting for 28% of the newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The scandal was the top story in three sectors (online, radio and cable TV), making up 44% of all cable news coverage. The Blagojevich case surpassed the level of weekly news coverage devoted to Spitzer (23%) when that story broke earlier this year. Republicans and Democrats were about equally likely to have paid very close attention to the Blagojevich arrest (34% vs. 29%).

Continuing Attention to Economic News

While the Blagojevich scandal dominated news coverage, many Americans remained focused on the nation’s economic crisis and news about a potential multi-billion government bailout for the U.S. auto industry. A majority (51%) followed economic news very closely. About one-in-four (24%) named economic news as the story they followed most closely. Four-in-ten (40%) say they followed news about the auto industry bailout very closely, while 24% list this as their top story. By comparison, 29% followed the Blagojevich scandal very closely and just 14% say it was the story they followed most closely.

Following the extensive Blagojevich coverage, press accounts favored news about government assistance to the automakers (18% of all news) over reports about the economy (11%).

In other news, slightly more than two-in-ten (22%) paid very close attention to the discovery of remains in Florida that could be those of missing toddler Caylee Anthony. For 13% of the public, news about that discovery was their top story of the week, roughly equal to the percentage who listed the Blagojevich scandal as their top story (14%).

The level of interest in the Anthony story is comparable to that of several other stories about murder investigations and missing persons, though the 2003 Laci Peterson murder received more public attention. For example, slightly more than two-in-ten (22%) Americans paid very close attention to news about the murder of a pregnant marine in January 2008. Approximately the same percentage (23%) closely followed news in 2007 about a missing women from Ohio who was nine months pregnant when she disappeared.

As is often the case with stories about missing persons, a greater percentage of women than men reported following news about Caylee Anthony very closely (27% vs. 16%). The largest gender gap in news interest was seen in the Laci Peterson story. Four-in-ten women followed that story very closely in May 2003, compared with 22% of men.

On other stories, about one-in-four (24%) Americans paid very close attention to news about the current situation and events in Iraq last week. Mid-way through the survey’s field period, an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush at a Baghdad press conference, drawing significant media attention. But an analysis of survey interviews conducted before and after the event indicate the incident did not influence the level of attention paid to events in Iraq last week.

The public continues to closely follow news about Barack Obama’s appointments and plans for his new administration, though less closely than in recent weeks. Three-in-ten followed the Obama transition very closely last week, down from 49% who were following it this closely at the end of November.

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 coverage. 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 were collected from December 8-14 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected December 12-15 from a nationally representative sample of 1,001 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 compiles this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey collects 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.