March 25, 2009

Strong Interest in AIG, Positive Views of Congress’ Response

Echoes of Dubai Ports Deal

Summary of Findings

The controversy over the millions of dollars in bonuses paid to AIG employees attracted considerable public interest last week. In fact, about as many people tracked that story very closely (50%) as followed news about the overall economy very closely (52%). The AIG controversy was the most closely followed story of the week for 29% of Americans, approaching that of the economic crisis overall (35%).

While the AIG bonuses drew more coverage than general economic news last week, the public did not view the AIG coverage as excessive: 47% said that news organizations gave the right amount of coverage to the controversy, while 28% say there was too much coverage and 23% believe that AIG was undercovered.

The public also expressed positive views of Congress’ response to the AIG situation. Spurred by anger over the millions paid in bonuses by AIG and other financial firms that received government bailout money, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation imposing a 90% tax on such bonuses. Overall, 58% of Americans say that Congress’ response to AIG paying bonuses while receiving government assistance was appropriate compared with 30% who say lawmakers made too much of the situation.

In this regard, the current reactions to the furor over AIG are comparable to the public’s response to the controversy three years ago over a proposal to let a Dubai-based company operate U.S. ports. In both cases, majorities endorsed the outrage displayed by Congress while far fewer said that lawmakers overreacted.

Support for how Congress handled the AIG dustup is broad and bipartisan. About two-thirds (65%) of Democrats and smaller majorities of Republicans (55%) and independents (55%) say that Congress acted appropriately. People who followed news about AIG very closely are somewhat more likely than those who followed AIG news less closely to endorse Congress’ reaction (63% vs. 53%). And more women than men say Congress reacted appropriately to the controversy (65% vs. 50%).

The latest weekly News Interest Index, conducted March 20-23 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that the AIG controversy has not affected Barack Obama’s image in recent days. More than half of the public (56%) says their opinion of the president has not changed in the past few weeks. Among those whose views have changed, 22% say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable recently, while 19% say their view of him has become less favorable.

Opinions about Obama in recent weeks are about the same as they were in the Feb. 27-March 2 News Interest Index survey. As was the case then, a sizable minority of Republicans (39% currently) say that their opinion of Obama has become more negative in recent weeks; a comparable proportion of Democrats (39%) say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable over that period.

Too Much Coverage of Obama on Leno

On balance, more people say the AIG bonuses have gotten the right amount of coverage than say there has been too much coverage (47% to 28%). However, the reverse is true when it comes to opinions about coverage of Obama’s appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

A plurality (46%) says that Obama’s appearance received too much coverage. About a third (35%) says news organizations devoted the right amount of coverage to Obama’s appearance while 8% say it got too little coverage.

By contrast, most Americans (54%) believe that the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is getting too little coverage; 36% say the news media has given the Afghanistan war the right amount of coverage while 7% say the war has received too much coverage. A sizable minority (45%) also says that news organizations have undercovered news about the situation in Iraq.

The Week’s Top Stories

Last week, both news coverage and the public’s news interests were dominated by the economic crisis and the backlash against the AIG bonuses. While 35% said that news about the economy was the story they followed most closely, and 29% named AIG as their top story, other news developments were overshadowed. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that these stories also accounted for most news coverage last week (30% AIG and 23% for other elements of the economy; yielding a total for economic coverage of 53%).

Barack Obama’s appearance on the Tonight Show, where he spoke at length about AIG and the economy, was followed very closely by 16% of the public and was the top story of the week for 4% of Americans. News organizations devoted 2% of the newshole to Obama’s late night appearance.

News about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to attract modest interest from the public. Last week, one-in-four Americans followed the situation in Iraq very closely and 5% said it was the story they followed more closely than any other. The military effort in Afghanistan also was followed very closely by 24%. This was the top story of the week for 4% of the public. The media devoted 1% of the newshole each to events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reports about actress Natasha Richardson’s death after a skiing accident were followed very closely by 18% of the public and for 8% this was the story they followed more closely than any other. Many more women (13%) than men (3%) listed this as the story they followed most closely last week. News about Natasha Richardson accounted for 2% of all coverage.

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 March 16-22, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 20-23, 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 Monday through Sunday) 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.