March 5, 2009

States’ Budget Woes Register With Public

Republicans Increasingly Critical of Obama

Summary of Findings

With Americans closely tracking news about the struggling economy, most are aware of the impact the recession is having on state and local budgets and the burgeoning federal deficit.

A majority (57%) says they have heard “a lot” about worsening state and local budget problems as governments at all levels struggle to deal with declining tax revenues and increasing costs. An identical majority (57%) has heard “a lot” about the Obama administration’s projection that the federal deficit will hit $1.75 trillion this year as Washington implements programs intended to steady troubled business sectors, boost employment and spur lending.

The economic crisis and the administration’s response continued to be the top stories last week in terms of both public interest and media coverage. About a third of Americans (34%) say they followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy more closely than any other story last week, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted Feb. 27-March 2 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Another 23% list President Obama’s budget proposal – with its mix of priority shifts and new spending to address current and longer-term concerns – as their top story of the week.

The crisis and efforts to stop the economic slide also dominated news coverage. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), 26% of the newshole was devoted to economic storylines. Obama’s budget proposal took up another 12% and the president’s policy speech before Congress accounted for another 10% of the newshole.

In the survey, most people (88%) say they had heard either a lot or a little about worsening state and local budget problems; only 12% say they had heard nothing at all. The breakdown is about the same for the federal deficit projection: 87% had heard either a lot or a little, while 12% had heard nothing at all.

The public was very aware of other economic stories as well, such as the government’s agreement to take a larger stake in Citigroup (40% heard a lot, 32% heard a little) and the steep losses reported by General Motors (44% heard a lot; 40% heard a little.) The share that had heard a lot about GM’s 2008 losses was similar to the share that had heard a lot last October (48%) about GM’s stock falling to its lowest level in 58 years.

The highly critical on-air comments by a CNBC correspondent about Obama’s housing plan, which caused a brief television and internet tempest, did not register as widely with the public. Nonetheless, 21% say they had heard a lot about the comments by Rick Santelli, 33% heard a little and 46% say they heard nothing at all.

On a separate subject, a comparable share (24%) say they heard a lot about the Pentagon decision, announced Feb. 26, to end the ban on news coverage of the return of coffins of U.S. service members killed overseas. More than four-in-ten (43%) heard a little about the decision, while 33% heard nothing at all.

Obama’s Image Declines among Reps

For most Americans, opinions of Barack Obama have not changed substantially in recent weeks, though partisan differences appear to be widening as Obama lays out specifics of his agenda. Overall, 23% of Americans say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable in the past few weeks, while 20% say their opinion has become less favorable; 56% say their opinion has not changed recently.

Views of Obama have remained stable among Democrats and independents, but the balance of opinion among Republicans has become more negative. In the current poll, 42% of Republicans say their opinion of Obama has become less favorable in the past few weeks, while just 9% say their opinion has become more favorable. In a poll conducted Feb. 6-9, 30% of Republicans said their opinion of the president had become less favorable and 15% said their view of him had become more favorable.

Top Stories of the Week

For the public, the economic crisis and the president’s budget proposal were the dominant stories of the week. Amid reports about a projected $1.75 trillion federal budget deficit and a grim week on Wall Street, 56% of Americans say they paid very close attention to news about the economy, and 34% say it was the news they followed most closely.

Obama’s budget proposal attracted the very close attention of 47% and was the top story for about one-in-four (23%). Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to have followed this story very closely. Obama’s budget blueprint received more public attention than George W. Bush’s first budget proposal in February 2001. Less than a third (31%) at that time said they followed news of the Bush plan, which included his first large round of tax cut proposals, very closely.

In what was a busy week for the new administration, Obama also announced plans to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by August 2010. Four-in-ten followed this story very closely. For 10%, it was the news they followed more closely than any other last week. More Democrats than Republicans say they paid very close attention to news about the troop drawdown (46% vs. 34%, respectively).

News about Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress attracted the very close attention of 37% of the public. Interest in Obama’s speech, laying out key elements of his economic agenda, was comparable to interest in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union, when he made his case for going to war in Iraq (36% followed that speech very closely). According to PEJ, news about Obama’s address to the nation accounted for 10% of the newshole last week, rivaling the coverage devoted to the president’s budget proposal. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say they paid very close attention to news about Obama’s speech (46% vs. 27%, respectively).

In other news, reports about growing drug-related violence in Mexico received a modest share of both public interest and news coverage last week. Nearly two-in-ten (18%) followed reports about the drug related violence that has contributed to more than 7,000 deaths since 2007. Overall, 3% of the public say this was their top story of the week. Residents of the states that border Mexico (Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas) were somewhat more likely than non-border state residents to name the drug war in Mexico as the story they followed most closely (7% vs. 2%, respectively). In terms of news coverage, 2% of reporting across the media sectors was devoted to the Mexican drug war, though it accounted for 5% of newspaper coverage.

Only about one-in-ten (11%) paid very close attention to news that Tiger Woods returned to golf after recovering from knee surgery; 17% say they followed this story fairly closely. Though Obama was by far the largest newsmaker last week according to PEJ, Woods was among the top newsmakers, with stories about his return making up 1% of the newshole.

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 February 23-March 1, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected February 27-March 2, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 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.