January 28, 2009

Inauguration Outdraws Interest in Economy

Public Says Media Fair in Obama Coverage

Summary of Findings

The public paid very close attention to the inauguration of Barack Obama as president last week, while keeping a close eye on the nation’s troubled economy. More than four-in-ten (42%) Americans say the inauguration of the nation’s first black president was the news story they followed most closely. By comparison, 25% say the same of the economy, according to the latest Pew Research Center weekly News Interest Index survey.

The inauguration’s many story lines – from complex logistics to analysis of Obama’s speech – easily made that event the most reported story of the week. According to the weekly content analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the media devoted 24% of the national newshole to the inauguration. The troubled economy was the second most covered story at 15% of the newshole as several big stories kept people focused on the nation’s financial woes despite the inaugural celebrations.

With a spate of bad economic news and a new president taking office amid huge crowds in Washington, majorities say they followed each story “very closely” (57% for economic news and 52% for the inauguration), according to the News Interest Index survey conducted Jan. 23-26.

Partisans, meanwhile, differed in their interest in the inauguration and the economy. More than half of Democrats (56%) say Obama’s inauguration was the story they followed most closely, compared with about a quarter (24%) of Republicans and close to four-in-ten independents (39%). More Republicans (34%) than Democrats (18%) or independents (27%) say the economy was the story they followed most closely last week.

As the new Democratic president starts his term, close to two-thirds of Americans (64%) say press coverage has been fair, about the same percentage that found coverage of Obama fair in the first days of 2009 (61%) . In early January, 23% said press coverage of Obama had not been critical enough, slightly more than now say the same (18%).

In recent days, Obama has faced more questions about some nominees for top office, such as newly confirmed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, as well as about the transparency of operations in his administration. Among independents, 18% now say press coverage has not been critical enough, down from 28% who said the same earlier in the month. The percent of Democrats who say press coverage has not been critical enough dropped from 11% to 5%. Among Republicans, there is no change. More than a third (37%) say the press has not been critical enough of Obama.

In Other News

The aftermath of the 22-day military conflict between Israel and Hamas drew considerable public interest. Three-in-ten (31%) say they followed news about conditions in the Gaza Strip very closely last week after the announcement of a cease fire. Public interest in this story was roughly equal to interest in the second week in January – following the start of the Israeli military’s ground invasion – when 34% of the public followed the conflict very closely. The inauguration and the financial crisis overshadowed Gaza in terms of public interest and media coverage. Still, one-in-ten listed the conflict between Israel and Hamas as the story they followed more closely than any other. For its part, the national news media devoted 4% of all coverage to this subject.

In economic news, the announcement of thousands of layoffs at several major American companies, including Microsoft, Intel and United Airlines, was very closely followed by a third (34%) of the American public. Attention to this news was comparable across gender, education levels and party affiliation. Some 6% cite the job cuts as the story they followed most closely last week. According to PEJ, the national media devoted 2% of the overall newshole to stories about unemployment and jobs.

Reports that Hillary Clinton was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and assumed the role of secretary of state attracted the very close attention of one-in-four Americans (24%). Clinton’s transition from the Senate to the new administration was the most closely followed story of the week for just 1% of the public.

Despite modest public interest relative to other top stories of the week, Clinton still proved to be a prominent newsmaker for the week of Jan 19-25. With her own confirmation and breaking news in New York on who would succeed her in the Senate, Clinton was the fifth leading headline maker of the week, according to PEJ’s analysis. Obama, however, was far and away the top newsmaker, playing a prominent role in 30% of the stories examined.

Obama’s executive order to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay military prison for suspected terrorists within a year was very closely followed by a third of the public (33%). A greater share of Democrats (38%) than Republicans (27%) paid very close attention to this decision.

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 January 19-25, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected January 23-26, 2009 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.