May 13, 2009

Public Sees News About Economy Less Glum

Swine Flu Interest High But Flagging

Summary of Findings

Most Americans say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the U.S. economy, a stark change from the start of the year when a sizable majority said they were hearing mostly bad economic news.

The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted May 8-11 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that almost two-thirds (64%) of the public says they are now hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy. That share has increased monthly since two-in-ten (19%) said they saw a mix of economic news in December. Last month, it was 56%.

Three-in-ten (31%) now say they are hearing mostly bad news. In December, 80% said they were hearing mostly bad news. By April, that was down to 39%. Currently, only 4% say they are hearing mostly good news about the economy, the same as in April.

The public continued to follow reports about the condition of the U.S. economy closely last week. Still, about a third (34%) say they followed reports about the swine flu in the U.S. and elsewhere most closely, slightly more than the 30% that say they followed economic stories most closely. But with the swine flu outbreak apparently not as dangerous as first feared, the share saying they followed news about the virus very closely was down 9 points from the previous week to 34%.

Meanwhile, the economy received the most coverage, filling 16% of the newshole as measured by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That number separates out coverage of the April unemployment report and the Obama budget, which together bring total economic coverage to 21%, according to PEJ. The swine flu, which dominated news coverage the week before with 31% of coverage, dropped to the second spot – taking up 9% of the newshole – as fears eased about the immediate spread and potential lethality of the H1N1 virus.

Growing Sense of Mixed Economic News

According to PEJ’s analysis, a major portion of economic news last week focused on government assessments of the financial health of struggling banks – and the need for additional money. But the media also reported on administration projections of economic growth later this year and a mixed federal jobs report for April: unemployment rose from 8.5% to 8.9%, the highest level since 1983, but the number of jobs lost proved significantly smaller than economists had predicted.

As in previous months, more Republicans than Democrats say the economic news is mostly bad; in the current poll about twice as many Republicans (41%) as Democrats (21%) say this. But the growing public impression that the news is mixed crosses partisan lines. Last month, Republicans were almost evenly divided between those saying they were hearing mostly bad news (48%) and those hearing a mix of good and bad (50%). Now the gap has widened (41% now say mostly bad, while 54% say a mix of good and bad).

Three quarters of Democrats now say they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, up from 62% last month. Roughly two-in-ten (21%) say they are hearing mostly bad news, down from 31% in April. Among independents, the share hearing a mix of economic news grew slightly from 56% to 63%, while the share hearing mostly bad news declined from 42% to 32%. Still, very few Democrats (4%), independents (3%) or Republicans (5%) report that they are hearing mostly good economic news.

Swine Flu Story Cools A Bit

In late April, the spread of the swine flu virus from Mexico to the U.S. and elsewhere grabbed public attention and media coverage. For the week of April 27, more than four-in-ten (43%) said they were following developments on the potentially deadly flu very closely. But last week, with the immediate threat seeming to diminish, the share of those following swine flu reports very closely dropped to 34%. That’s still greater than the 26% that said they very closely followed the spread of a drug-resistant staph infection in October 2007.

Meanwhile, 34% say they followed reports about the swine flu more closely than any other story, slightly higher than the 30% that say they followed news about the U.S. economy most closely. But there were some significant differences among demographic groups. For example, 41% of women say they followed news about the swine flu most closely, while 27% of men say the same. Instead, 38% of men followed economic news most closely, compared with 22% of women.

People with children under 18 in their homes also were more likely to say they were following flu news most closely. More than four-in-ten (42%) of those people say they followed flu developments more closely than any other story, compared with 30% of those without children under 18 in their homes.

Meanwhile, one third (33%) say they followed news about the latest unemployment report very closely, while 8% say that was the story they followed most closely. The unemployment report took up 3% of the newshole, according to PEJ.

Close to two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about the instability in Pakistan very closely, while 5% say this was the story they followed most closely. Developments in Pakistan took up 5% of the newshole.

Slightly more than two-in-ten (22%) say they followed the debate in Washington over the federal budget very closely, while 3% say this was the story they followed most closely. Reporting on the federal budget took up 2% of the newshole, according to PEJ.

A smaller share (16%) says they followed steps to legalize gay marriage in Maine and New Hampshire very closely; 3% say this was the news they followed most closely last week. News about gay marriage took up 1% of the newshole.

Many Heard About Peterson Arrest

Close to three-in-ten (28%) say they heard a lot about former police officer Drew Peterson getting charged with the murder of his third wife; 46% say they heard a little about this story. Still, the share is significantly smaller than the percentage that had heard a lot about two other recent crime stories. In mid-April, 50% said they had heard a lot about allegations that a Sunday school teacher had killed an 8-year-old California girl. Later in the month, 42% said they had heard a lot about the arrest of a man suspected of robbing and killing women he met through the Craigslist website.

One quarter say they heard a lot about the suspension of Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez after he tested positive for a substance banned by baseball. Four-in-ten say they heard a little about this story; 35% say they heard nothing at all. Not surprisingly, men are more likely to have heard a lot about the suspension (33% of men vs. 17% of women).

Just over two-in-ten (22%) say they heard a lot about the woman who received the first face transplant operation done in the United States. About half (49%) say they heard a little and 28% say they heard nothing at all about this. In this case, women were more likely to have heard a lot about the story than men (27% vs. 17%).

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 May 4-10, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 8-11 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.