February 4, 2009

Policy Issues Overshadow Personal Stories in Obama’s First Weeks

Broad Public Awareness of Coming Digital TV Transition

Summary of Findings

The public focused much more on President Obama’s major policy proposals and decisions than on lighter, more personal stories about the new president and his family in the early days of his administration. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) say they heard a lot about Obama’s push for quick action on his economic stimulus plan. In contrast, just 26% say they heard a lot about Obama’s successful bid to keep his Blackberry phone.

A majority (57%) say they heard a lot about Obama’s executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba within a year, according to the latest Pew Research Center weekly News Interest Index survey.

Close to half of the public (46%) also heard a lot about Obama’s sharp criticism of leading financial services companies that have awarded huge bonuses to their executives, at a time when many of these companies have sought aid from the federal bailout program. And four-in-ten heard a lot about Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s failure to pay some of his taxes on time. The survey, conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 2, was in the field when news broke that Tom Daschle, Obama’s choice to be secretary of health and human services, also had failed to pay certain taxes in recent years. Daschle withdrew from consideration this week.

The public, meanwhile, continued to closely track reports about the nation’s troubled economy and the debate in Washington about how best to stimulate the economy. About a third (34%) say they followed stories about the economy more closely than any other story last week, while about a quarter (24%) say the story they followed most closely was the debate in Congress over Obama’s proposed stimulus plan. The economic crisis was easily the most reported story of the week, with those two story themes – the economy and the stimulus proposal – accounting for 45% of the newshole, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) say they heard a lot about Obama taking the oath of office a second time because of a mix-up in the words on inauguration day. Somewhat fewer (28%) say they heard a lot about Obama’s call for improved relations with the Muslim world in an interview with an Arab television station. The interview was his first on television since taking the oath of office.

About the same percentage say they heard a lot about Obama’s bid to keep his Blackberry (26%) and his executive order lifting a ban on funds for international family planning organizations that provide abortions or information about abortions (25%). Only 14% say they heard a lot about the marketing of dolls with the same names as Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha. Close to half (47%) say they had heard nothing at all about that story.

Modest Partisan Differences in Awareness

In terms of the policy issues, there was little partisan difference in the numbers of Democrats and Republicans who say they had heard a lot about Obama’s push for his stimulus (74% vs. 73%) or the decision to close the Guantanamo prison (63% vs. 61%).

Democrats were slightly more likely to have heard a lot about Obama’s criticism of executive bonuses (54% vs. 45%) and Obama’s calls for improved relations with the Muslim world (35% vs. 25%). Republicans, on the other hand, were slightly more likely to have heard a lot about Obama’s decision to lift the ban on funds for international organizations that provide abortions or abortion information (36% vs. 27%).

Peanut Scare Grabs Attention

Americans pay very close attention to news about food safety and consumer news about widely used products, as demonstrated by interest in the story last week about a salmonella outbreak that has been linked to tainted peanuts. A third of Americans (33%) followed news about the national recall of potentially contaminated peanut products very closely; 11% listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. Still, in terms of press coverage, just 1% of the overall newshole was devoted to this story, according to PEJ.

Public interest in the peanut recall is on par with other recent consumer scares, including recalls involving U.S. beef early last year and children’s toys made in China in late 2007. The Firestone tire recall in 2000 (followed very closely by 42% of the public) and a 1997 beef recall (40% followed very closely) attracted considerably more public interest.

Women tend to follow news about consumer safety more closely than men. Interest in the peanut product recall has been especially high among women. More than four-in-ten women (41%) followed this story very closely compared with one-in-four (25%) men. The only recent comparable story in which men paid just as much attention as women was the Firestone tire recall: 43% of men and 41% of women followed this news very closely.

Top Stories of the Week

With Obama’s inauguration now history, the economic crisis dominated the news last week, both in terms of interest and coverage. Economic news about the deteriorating conditions of the U.S. economy and a roughly $900 billion economic stimulus plan now before Congress were the most closely followed news items for virtually six-in-ten Americans (58%). A majority (52%) followed news about the conditions of the economy very closely, while 34% say it was the story they followed most closely. Roughly a third (36%) followed the debate in Congress over the president’s economic plan very closely, while 24% say it was their most closely followed story.

Meanwhile, the conditions of the U.S. economy, including announcements about layoffs and the release of billions of dollars in federal assistance to U.S. banks, accounted for 21% of the news coverage last week across five major media sectors, according to the PEJ analysis. Coverage of the Congressional debate and political maneuvering surrounding the stimulus package made up 24% of the overall newshole.

In other news last week, one-in-five (20%) paid very close attention to the impeachment and removal from office of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich; 4% named this as their top story for the week. The media focused much greater attention on Blagojevich than the public. Aside from economic news, this was the next biggest story of the week in terms of coverage. In a week that included a national media blitz by Blagojevich as his senate trial unfolded in Illinois, the press devoted 8% of all news to the story.

One-in-four Americans (26%) paid very close attention to news about the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan; 7% listed this as the story they followed most closely. The national news media devoted 2% of coverage to the war in Afghanistan. And interest in news about the Super Bowl was on par with last year. About one-in-five (19%) followed NFL football stories very closely this past week.

Public Signaled On Digital TV

On another issue, the public has heard a lot about the upcoming transition from analog to digital signal transmissions for the nation’s television stations. Lawmakers and the White House have been working to delay the transition, initially set for Feb. 17, to June 12 because many people remain unprepared for the change and could be deprived of free over-the-air programming. The House was working to send an extension measure to Obama Wednesday.

Americans, though, are broadly aware of the coming change. About eight-in-ten (81%) say they have heard a lot about the switch and 16% say that have heard a little. Only 3% say they have heard nothing at all. There is little variation across age groups or level of education on the awareness of this issue.

The new transmission method will limit the ability of those with older televisions or no cable service to receive free television reception unless they use a digital converter box. The government has offered coupons to help people pay for the boxes, but that program used up all funding before many potentially affected households were helped.

While more than three-quarters of the public (77%) do not think that televisions in their homes will be affected by the conversion, one-in-five say that they will. Roughly one-in-four (27%) from households with less than $30,000 in annual income believe that this change is going to affect the TVs in their homes and one-in-five (19%) among households with $30,000 to $75,000 in annual earnings share this view. Higher income Americans are less likely to think the change will affect them (11%). People living in the Midwest are also more likely to think that the conversion is going to affect their reception than people from other regions of the country.

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 26-February 1, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected January 30-February 2, 2009 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 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.