June 4, 2009

First Impressions of Sotomayor Mostly Positive

Press Coverage of Nomination Seen as Fair

Summary of Findings

Americans who have learned at least a little about Judge Sonia Sotomayor are more likely to offer traits or aspects they like about President Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee than things they do not like about the federal appellate court judge from New York.

Asked if there was anything they have learned that they like about Sotomayor, 45% offered responses, most frequently citing her background and experience, her gender and her ethnicity. Asked if they had learned anything they dislike about her, a smaller share (26%) offered responses, with relatively small percentages citing allegations that she is racially biased (7%) or a judicial activist (5%).

Still, large shares of Americans either offer no answer to the question (29% on what they like; 48% on what they dislike) or say they have not yet learned anything about the woman who would be the first Hispanic justice on the nation’s top court (26%).

Obama announced on May 26 that he had chosen Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican woman who grew up in the Bronx and went on to Yale Law School, to replace retiring Justice David Souter. The responses to the questions on the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted May 29-June 1 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, indicate that many of the first impressions of Sotomayor, not surprisingly, reflect the main arguments of those backing her nomination and those who have raised concerns.

About three-in-ten Americans (29%) say they followed news about the nomination very closely. That is the highest share following the unveiling of a Supreme Court choice very closely since the nomination of Clarence Thomas by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 (33% followed very closely).

The nomination dominated media coverage, taking up 24% of the newshole analyzed by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. PEJ also found that Sotomayor was the top newsmaker for the week, playing a leading role in 14% of stories. Obama was the lead newsmaker in 7% of stories analyzed by PEJ, the lowest total since he took office.

Still, the Supreme Court pick had to contend with other major stories – such as the continuing troubles facing the economy and General Motors’ preparations for bankruptcy – for the public’s attention. One-in-five say they followed news about the U.S. economy more closely than other top stories, while 18% say they followed developments involving the GM bankruptcy most closely. Most of the polling took place before GM filed for bankruptcy on June 1. Meanwhile, 15% say they followed reports about Sotomayor’s nomination more closely than any other major story. That is the same share that say they followed reports about North Korea testing nuclear weapons and missiles most closely.

Close to two-in-ten (18%) say they learned a lot about Sotomayor following the nomination, while 33% say they learned some and 24% say they learned just a little. Still, a quarter say they learned nothing at all about Sotomayor.

Likes and Dislikes

Fewer than half of the public offered things they like or dislike about Sotomayor, evidence that many people are still learning about the nominee. But the positive responses indicate that Sotomayor’s biography may be her strongest asset.

When asked to cite what they like about her from what they had read or heard so far, two-in-ten cite aspects of her personal background and experience, with the largest share (7%) citing her life story. In this category, smaller percentages cite her experience, her qualifications, her education or her legal background.

About one-in-ten cite her gender (11%) or her ethnic heritage (9%). Another 8% cite personal characteristics, such as intelligence, honesty or her attitude.

When asked to cite what they did not like about her from what they had read or heard so far, the most frequent responses represent worries about Sotomayor’s approach to serving as a judge and her attitudes about race. Out of the total survey, 7% cite concerns about her racial attitudes. That amounts to about a quarter of those offering something they dislike about her.

Within that total share, 3% say Sotomayor is a racist, 2% cite her comments about a Latina judge making better decisions than a white male judge and 1% mention her ruling in a case – now before the Supreme Court – brought by white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who felt they were wronged by city promotion decisions.

Another 5% cite concerns about whether she would be a “judicial activist,” with 2% of that group mentioning Sotomayor’s comments about appellate court judges making policy and another 2% saying they worried about how she would interpret the law.

Another 3% cite concerns about her position on certain issues, such as abortion or gun control, 2% say she is too liberal and 2% cite her experience and background. Of that last group, 1% say they do not trust her or feel she is not forthcoming.

Democrats are significantly more likely to say they learned something they like about Sotomayor (58%) than are Republicans (34%) or independents (40%). On the other hand, Republicans are much more likely to say they learned something they did not like (45%), compared with 12% for Democrats and 26% for independents.

Partisan Divide on Media Coverage of Sotomayor

A plurality of Americans (45%) say press coverage of the nomination has been fair. One-in-five say the coverage has not been critical enough, while 17% say it has been too critical.

Republicans, though, are significantly more likely to say the press has not been critical enough (36%). Still, close to four-in-ten (38%) say coverage has been fair and about one-in-ten (11%) say coverage has been too critical.

A majority of Democrats (54%) says the press has been fair in its coverage of the first Latina Supreme Court nominee. Close to a quarter (23%) of Democrats say the press has been too critical and only 7% say it has not been critical enough. Independents are much like the nation as a whole – 42% say press coverage has been fair, 15% say it has been too critical and 22% say it has not been critical enough.

Men and woman also had slightly different takes on press coverage. About two-in-ten women (21%) say the press has been too critical in reporting on Sotomayor, compared with 13% of men. About a quarter of men (26%) say the reporting has not been critical enough, compared with 15% of women. Still, substantial pluralities among both sexes see the reporting as fair: 48% of woman and 41% of men.

Top Stories

The public divided its attention among the top stories last week, though Americans say they followed news about the economy – and the fate of General Motors – most closely.

Two-in-ten say they followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy most closely among the leading stories. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they followed economic news very closely, comparable to the share following the economy very closely in recent weeks. According to PEJ, coverage of the economic crisis took up 9% of the newshole.

Close to two-in-ten (18%) say they followed reports about General Motors’ plans to file bankruptcy most closely. A third say they followed those stories very closely, while another 40% followed them fairly closely. Those numbers are similar to the share following American carmakers’ troubles in recent surveys. Stories about GM’s plans – the company filed for Chapter 11 on June 1 – and developments at Chrysler accounted for 7% of the newshole.

The Sotomayor nomination was the most closely followed story for 15% of the public. About three-in-ten (29%) say they followed the stories very closely, while a comparable share followed them fairly closely. Still, close to a quarter (23%) say they followed this story – the top story in terms of coverage — not at all closely.

Meanwhile, 15% say they followed reports about North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and missiles most closely. About a third (34%) followed those stories very closely, with 36% followed them fairly closely. That is the highest level of interest in reporting on North Korea’s weapons machinations since Oct. 2006, when 45% said they were very closely following news about a nuclear weapons test. These stories made up 12 of coverage, according to PEJ.

About one-in-ten (9%) say they most closely followed the ruling by the California Supreme Court that upheld the state’s ban on gay marriage. About two-in-ten (22%) say they followed that story very closely, while 35% followed it fairly closely. Close to a quarter (23%) say they did not follow it at all closely. Reporting on the fight over gay marriage in California made up 4% of the newshole.

Just 3% say the worsening military conflict between the Taliban and the Pakistani government was the story they followed most closely last week. Almost a quarter (23%) say they followed this story very closely, while 30% followed it fairly closely.

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 25-May 31, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 29-June 1 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.