June 11, 2009

Week’s Major News Stories Draw Different Audiences

Coverage of Obama Seen as Largely Fair

Summary of Findings

Americans divided their attention among several major stories last week as President Obama reached out to the Muslim world in a major speech, a jetliner crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and General Motors filed for bankruptcy protection. At the same time, they continued to keep a close watch on news about the troubles facing the U.S. economy.

Not surprisingly, different segments of the public showed greater interest in certain stories. For example, older Americans, the better educated, women and Democrats were more likely than others to say they followed Obama’s speech in Cairo more closely than any other major story last week.

The General Motors developments attracted more interest among men, especially those 50 and older, and Republicans, while the horrific news about the jet crash off the coast of Brazil was followed more closely by women under 50 and the more affluent.

Meanwhile, the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted June 5-8 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, shows that interest in news about the U.S. economy remained strong across most groups. About two-in ten (22%) say they followed economic news more closely than other major stories.

A comparable share (21%) say they followed news about the deadly plane crash most closely, while 17% say the same about Obama’s speech to the Muslim world on June 4. A slightly smaller share (13%) say they followed news about the GM bankruptcy filing more closely than other major stories, while 7% say they followed news about the NBA final series most closely, and 5% say they followed news about the killing of a Kansas doctor who performed abortions that closely.

According to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world attracted the most media coverage last week. Reporting on the president’s trip to the Middle East and Europe accounted for about 20% of the media newshole. The Cairo speech and reaction to it represented most of that – 17% of the total newshole.

The problems facing the car industry, most notably the GM bankruptcy, accounted for 12% of news coverage, while the economy took up 11% and the Air France crash another 10%. News about the killing of Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed abortions, accounted for 8% of the newshole.

As Obama made news on both the foreign and domestic fronts, Americans say they see no change in the balance of media coverage of the president since April. More than half (53%) say they think media coverage of Obama has been fair, while 16% say it has been too critical and 26% say it has not been critical enough.

Four-in-ten (40%) of those who say they watch Fox News Channel regularly say that media coverage of Obama has not been critical enough. That compares with just 15% of regular CNN viewers and 12% of regular MSNBC viewers.

Breaking Down News Interest

There are substantial partisan differences in attentiveness to major stories, particularly Obama’s speech to the Muslim world. Nearly three times more Democrats (25%) than Republicans (9%) cited Obama’s address as the week’s top story.

More Republicans than Democrats say the economy was the story they followed most closely (28% vs. 18% of Democrats and 22% for independents). In addition, twice as many Republicans (18%) as Democrats (9%) say they followed stories about GM’s bankruptcy more closely than all other stories.

Somewhat more women (20%) than men (13%) cited Obama’s speech as their most closely followed story; more men (17%) than women (10%) tracked news about GM most closely.

During a busy news week, the crash of the Air France jet drew fairly extensive interest. Women are slightly more likely to say they followed that story most closely (23% compared with 19% for men). That includes 26% of women under 50.

Fewer than one-in-ten (7%) say they followed the NBA championship series, now underway, more closely than other news last week, while 13% say they followed the finals very closely. That’s slightly less than the 18% that said they very closely followed the Boston Celtics winning the series last year. Not surprisingly, men are more likely than women to say they are following the series very closely (17% vs. 9%).

Just 5% say they followed the murder of George Tiller – the Kansas doctor who ran a health clinic that provided abortions – more closely than other major stories, while 16% say they followed that news very closely. Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans or independents to say they followed this news very closely (22% vs. 15% or 13%, respectively.)

Most See Obama Coverage As Fair

As Barack Obama completed his trip to Europe and the Middle East, 53% of Americans say that the press has been fair in its coverage of the new president. About a quarter (26%) say the press has not been critical enough, while 16% say it has been too critical. In late April, 55% said press coverage was fair, 26% said it was not critical enough and 15% said it was too critical.

Currently, seven-in-ten (69%) Democrats say the press has been fair, as do a majority of independents (52%). By contrast, about a third (34%) of Republicans say coverage of Obama has been fair, while a majority (57%) say that coverage has not been critical enough.

The opinions of Fox News viewers stand in stark contrast with regular viewers of MSNBC. Four-in-ten of those who regulary watch Fox say coverage of the president has not been critical enough, roughly the same as the share (42%) that says coverage has been fair. By contrast, two-thirds of MSNBC viewers say that Obama coverage has been fair, while 20% say it has been too critical. Just 12% say it has not been critical enough. Those who regularly watch CNN hold views similar to those of the MSNBC audience, though a slightly smaller share (58%) sees coverage as fair.

Opinions about press coverage of Obama among regular newspaper readers and those who regularly get news online fall somewhere between those of regular cable news consumers. Majorities of those who regularly get news from either newspapers (57%) or the internet (52%) say that Obama’s coverage has been fair. Roughly three-in-ten regular newspaper readers and online news consumers say that the press has not been critical enough in covering Obama (27% and 28%, respectively). Slightly more of regular internet news conusmers (17%) than regular newspaper readers (13%) find the coverage to be too critical of Obama.

Many Aware of Limbaugh Comments About Sotomayor

More than a quarter of Americans (27%) say they heard a lot and 33% say they heard a little last week about radio commentator Rush Limbaugh calling Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, a racist. Regular viewers of the cable news channels were more likely to have heard about Limbaugh’s comments.

About four-in-ten (41%) regular MSNBC viewers, 37% regular CNN viewers and 33% regular Fox viewers say they had heard a lot about this story. Equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats say they heard a lot about Limbaugh’s criticisms of Sotomayor (30% of Republicans, 31% of Democrats).

Fewer than one-in-four (23%) say they heard a lot about Obama taking part in ceremonies in France commemorating D-Day, the start of the critical World War II battle. Another 42% say they heard a little about this. Not surprisingly, a greater share of Americans 65 and older (34%) say they heard a lot Obama commemorating D-Day than those younger than 40 (12%). Among those 40 to 64, 28% say they had heard a lot about Obama’s appearance.

The same percentage say they heard a lot about Barack and Michelle Obama’s night out in New York City (23%). Among the major cable news channels, comparable shares of regular viewers say they heard a lot about the date night (29% for Fox viewers, 32% for MSNBC viewers and 29% for CNN viewers.)

Obama’s speech in Cairo was among the most closely followed stories of the week, but only two-in-ten (21%) say they heard a lot about Muslim reaction to the address. Another 41% said they had heard a little about feedback in the Muslim world,while 37% say they heard nothing at all about this.

Overall, 21% say they heard a lot about Conan O’Brien’s start as host of The Tonight show last week. A larger share of those younger than 40 heard at least something (64% heard a lot or a little) about O’Brien’s premiere than those 65 and older. Among that group, 52% had heard nothing at all about this.

Only 15% of the public say they heard a lot about NBC News prime time specials about life inside the Obama White House. More than half (55%) say they heard nothing at all about this. Not surprisingly, regular MSNBC viewers were more likely to have heard a lot about these special reports than the regular Fox News audience (26% vs. 16%, respectively).

A trip by Michelle Obama and her two daughters to Paris was not a widely recognized story. Just one-in-ten (9%) say they heard a lot about the Obamas visiting Paris last weekend. A majority (55%) heard nothing at all about their trip.

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 June 1-7, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected June 5-8, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 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.

Cite this publication: “Week’s Major News Stories Draw Different Audiences.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 11, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/06/11/weeks-major-news-stories-draw-different-audiences/, accessed on July 22, 2014.