April 2, 2009

Little Sign of Obama Fatigue

Fewer See Press Coverage of President as Fair

Summary of Findings

No one has gotten more media coverage and attention in recent months than Barack Obama, but only about a third of Americans (34%) say they are hearing too much about the nation’s new president. More than half (54%) say they are hearing the right amount about Obama as he works to put his agenda in place and grapple with a global economic crisis.

This is in contrast to perceptions about candidate Obama in early August 2008, when 48% said they were hearing too much about the presumptive Democratic nominee and 41% said they were hearing the right amount.

Not surprisingly, the current impressions differ significantly by party. In the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted March 27-30 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, nearly six-in-ten Republicans (59%) say they have been hearing too much about Obama. Only 16% of Democrats and 33% of independents agree. About a third of Republicans (32%) say Obama has gotten the right amount of coverage, compared with 76% of Democrats and 50% of independents.

At the same time, the proportion of Americans that say the press has been fair in its coverage of Obama has dipped since shortly after his Jan. 20 inauguration from 64% to 52%. The share saying the press has not been critical enough has risen from 18% in January to 24% currently, while the share saying the press has been too critical has risen from 12% to 18%.

More than half of Republicans (52%) say the press has not been critical enough of Obama, compared with 25% of independents and just 4% of Democrats. More than six-in-ten Democrats (63%) and 52% of independents say the press has been fair in coverage of the president; 35% of Republicans agree.

The economy, meanwhile, continues to dominate both public interest and news coverage. Three-in-ten say they followed reports about the economy more closely than any other story last week. Another 17% say they followed reports on Obama’s budget proposal most closely and 8% say they followed administration plans to expand federal regulation of financial institutions most closely. Stories about the economy – including Obama’s budget proposal – filled up 41% of the media newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Perceptions Change Post-Election

With Obama’s historic campaign dominating media coverage in the run up to the Nov. 4 election, the public at times seemed to think the Democratic candidate was overexposed. In early August, about two-thirds of Republicans (67%) said they were hearing too much about Obama, compared with 51% of independents and 34% of Democrats.

By late October, 41% said they were hearing too much about Obama, while a similar share (46%) said they were hearing too much about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate. In both cases, partisans were sharply divided, with a majority of Democrats (58%) saying they had heard too much about Palin, and even greater percentage of Republicans (66%) saying they had heard too much about Obama. At that time, a smaller proportion of the public (31%) said they were hearing too much about GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

Currently, there is little evidence of “Obama fatigue,” despite his many appearances on news and entertainment programs – including the Tonight Show with Jay Leno – and intensive press coverage of the new president. Since he took office, Obama has repeatedly been the top newsmaker each week as measured by PEJ – based on the number of stories counted in which he plays a prominent role. The last week in which Obama was not the top newsmaker was in mid-December, during the transition, when Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was arrested on corruption charges that included allegations he sought to sell Obama’s then vacant senate seat.

Closely Watching Economic News

The public continues to track news about the U.S. economy closely as American automakers struggle, stock markets prove volatile, real estate values drop further, and jobs disappear. Nearly half (48%) say they followed economic news last week very closely. Three-in-ten say they followed news about the economy more closely than any other story last week. According to PEJ, news about the economic crisis took up 35% of the newshole.

More than a quarter (28%) say they followed Obama’s budget proposal very closely, while 17% say that was the story they followed most closely last week. Budget coverage filled about 6% of the newshole.

The menacing floods in Fargo, N.D., attracted the very close attention of 24% of the public, while 13% say that was the story they followed most closely. Stories about the flooding that forced the evacuation of thousands made up 5% of the newshole.

About a third (36%) say they very closely followed news about the Obama administration’s plans to expand financial regulation of financial institutions in response to the economic crisis; 8% say that was the story they followed most closely.

Two-in-ten say they very closely followed news about a horrific shooting incident in Oakland, Cal., that left four police officers dead; 7% say that was the story they followed most closely. According to PEJ, coverage of that story made up about 1% of the newshole.

A smaller share (14%) say they very closely followed news about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Mexico to discuss drug violence near the border. For 4%, this was the story they followed most closely last week. Stories about the Mexican drug war made up about 6% of the newshole measured by PEJ.

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 23-29, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 27-30, 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 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.