April 15, 2009

Most Now Say News Paints Mixed Economic Picture

Many Follow Somali Pirate Story

Summary of Findings

The proportion of Americans saying they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy – rather than mostly bad news – continues to steadily increase.

Currently, 56% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, up from 46% in March and just 19% last December. The proportion saying they are hearing mostly bad news has fallen dramatically over this period – from 80% in December and 51% in March to 39% currently. Very few Americans – just 4% in the current survey – continue to say they are hearing mostly good economic news.

The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted April 9-13 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that the share saying they are hearing a mix of economic news has increased across partisan lines, but most notably among Republicans. Last month, nearly twice as many Republicans said they were hearing mostly bad economic news (65%) as said they were hearing both good and bad news (33%). Today, about as many Republicans say they are hearing a mix of both good and bad economic news (50%) as say they are hearing predominantly negative news (48%).

Among Democrats, 62% now see a mix of news, compared with 55% last month. And among independents, 56% see a mix of economic news, up from 44% in March.

When asked about perceptions of news about their local economy, the public is more narrowly divided. Still, people in states struggling to manage their finances are more likely than people in other states to say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy in their area.

Last week, the public continued to track economic news more closely than other major stories. More than three-in-ten (31%) say they followed reports about the condition of the economy most closely, while two-in-ten say they followed reports about the hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates more closely than any other story. A separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) found those two stories received the most coverage as well. Economic news took up 13% of the newshole (counting stories about state and local budget troubles separately). The standoff between Somali pirates and the U.S. Navy – and its dramatic conclusion on April 12 – took up 14%.

The change in perceptions on the tone of economic news comes amid signs that the worst decline in decades may be slowing. President Obama late last week said he sees “glimmers of hope,” though he cautioned that the economic problems facing the nation are severe and likely to persist for some time.

When asked about news about the economy in their local area, the public expresses fairly similar views as about national economic news. Nearly half (49%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news, while 44% say they are hearing mostly bad news. Another 5% say they are hearing mostly good news. There are no significant partisan differences in impressions of local economic news.

However, people who say they have been following news about state and local budget problems very closely are more likely than those paying less attention to say the news they’ve been hearing about the local economy is mostly bad. A majority (52%) of those who followed the week’s state and local budget news very closely report that what they’ve been hearing about their local economy is mostly bad; that compares with 41% of those who were less attentive to news about state and local budget troubles.

The balance of good and bad news that people are hearing about their local economy may be related to how well their states are managing state finances. In those states receiving below-average grades for fiscal management in an analysis by the Pew Center on the States, half (50%) of the public reports hearing mostly bad news about the economy in their area; while 44% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news. By contrast, those who live in states whose financial health is rated above average, a majority says (53%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about their local economy and fewer (38%) report hearing mostly bad news.

There is some difference in perceptions of national economic news. Six-in-ten of those in the better performing states say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the broader economy, while 52% of those in the lowest rated states say the same.

In addition, there is somewhat greater interest in state and local budget problems in states that get lower ratings for fiscal management. A third (34%) of those living in states graded below average say they are following news about state and local budget problems very closely, compared to one-in-four (24%) in states ranked average or above average.

Top Stories: Economy and Pirates

Americans continued to closely track reports about the condition of the U.S. economy last week, though many also closely followed the dramatic rescue of a cargo ship captain held by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa. Close to half (48%) say they followed economic reports very closely, the same share as the previous week. For about three-in-ten (31%), this was the most closely followed story of the week. Economic stories took up about 13% of the newshole, separating out stories on state and local budget problems.

The standoff between the U.S. Navy and Somali pirates reached its dramatic and deadly conclusion Sunday while the survey was still in the field, but still about a third (34%) say they followed reports about the cargo ship hijacking very closely; another 35% followed this story fairly closely. For 20%, this was the most closely followed story of the week. Coverage of the pirate story took up 14% of the newshole, according to PEJ.

About one-in-ten (11%) say they followed Obama’s trip to Turkey and Iraq most closely last week; 23% say they followed that story very closely, while 29% say they followed the trip fairly closely. Obama’s overseas travels took up about 9% of the newshole.

For 8%, the major earthquake that hit Italy was the story they followed most closely. Nearly one-in-five (18%) say they followed that story very closely, while 35% say they followed the earthquake fairly closely. Earthquake coverage made up 6% of the newshole.

A smaller share – 5% – say they followed news about state and local budget problems most closely. Close to three-in-ten (28%) say they followed that story very closely, while 30% say they followed it fairly closely. Those stories amounted to 1% of overall coverage.

Just 2% say they followed stories about the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont more closely than any other story; 13% followed that story very closely, while 21% say they followed it fairly closely. Those stories also took up about 1% of the newshole as 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 April 6-12, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected April 9-11 and April 13, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 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.