June 17, 2009

Employment News Seen As Overwhelmingly Bad

Health Care Reform Debate Gets Noticed

Summary of Findings

Americans by a wide margin say they are hearing mostly negative news about the nation’s job situation, though they are more likely to sense a mix of good and bad news about other elements of the economy.

With the jobless rate climbing, seven-in-ten (71%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the employment picture. About a quarter (27%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news, while just 1 percent say they are hearing mostly good news. Perceptions of news about prices, financial markets and real estate values are more mixed.

Looking at what people are hearing about the economy as a whole, 2009’s upward trend toward a greater mix of good and bad economic news has come to a stop. Six-in-ten (59%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news, down from 64% in May. In December 2008, shortly after the fall financial meltdown, just 19% said they were hearing a mix of good and bad news.

In addition, the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted June 12-15 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, shows that the share that says they are hearing mostly bad news is up from 31% in May to 37%. In December, 80% said they were hearing mostly bad news.

Meanwhile, Americans continue to track news about the still-struggling economy closely. A quarter say this was the story they followed more closely than any other last week. Another 19% say they followed the continuing financial troubles of U.S. automakers General Motors and Chrysler most closely.

The media also maintained their focus on the economy. According to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, reporting on the economic crisis accounted for 13% of the newshole last week. That made it the leading story, though coverage of the horrific shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was not far behind (11%).

Shifting Mix of Economic News

The share of the public that says they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news fell from 64% in May to 59%, while the share that says they are hearing mostly bad news increased from 31% to 37%. The percentage that says they are hearing mostly good news remains small and did not change (4%).

Before President Obama took office, Democrats and Republicans had similar takes on the mix of economic news, but since February, Democrats have been more upbeat in their assessments. That continues in the latest survey. Almost two-thirds of Democrats (65%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news, compared with 55% of Republicans and 57% of independents. Meanwhile, 43% of Republicans say they are hearing mostly bad news, compared with 28% of Democrats and 39% of independents.

While the public clearly sees the employment picture as bleak, attitudes are more mixed about news on prices, the financial markets and real estate values. A plurality (46%) says they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about prices for food and consumer goods, while 39% says they are hearing mostly bad news. Almost one-in-ten (9%) say they are hearing mostly good news.
Perceptions of news about the financial markets are divided between those hearing a mix of good and bad (45%) and those hearing mostly bad news (43%). Another 9% say they are hearing mostly good news.

On real estate values, 45% say they are hearing mostly bad news, compared with 40% who say they are hearing a mix of good and bad and 11% who say they are hearing mostly good news.

Economy Remains Top Story

About four-in-ten (41%) Americans say they followed news about the economy very closely last week, about the same level of attention measured since early May. For 25%, this was the story they followed most closely.

Three-in-ten say they followed news about continuing troubles of GM and Chrysler very closely, about the same level as the previous week when GM filed for bankruptcy. Those stories were followed most closely by 19% and the automakers’ troubles took up 6% of the newshole as measured by PEJ.

Almost three-in-ten (29%) very closely followed the early debate in Washington over health care reform. That’s comparable to the 27% that very closely followed reports in August 1993 about the workings of a White House task force on health care reform headed by Hillary Clinton. Interest spiked the next month (49% followed very closely) as President Clinton detailed his plans in an address before Congress.

Today, 13% say they followed the health care debate more closely than any other major story. Stories about these early discussions and differing proposals filled 7% of the newshole analyzed by PEJ.

About a quarter (26%) say they very closely followed news about the deadly shooting at the Holocaust Museum allegedly by an 88-year-old white supremacist and anti-Semite. For 12%, this was the story they followed most closely. The story accounted for 11% of coverage, just behind reporting on the economy. It was the top story of the week for the cable news stations, according to PEJ.

About two-in-ten (19%) very closely followed news about Congress passing legislation placing new restrictions on the tobacco industry. For 4%, this was the story they followed most closely.

And a similar share (18%) say they very closely followed news about the presidential election in Iran, though attention to that story grew by Sunday as reports began emerging about potential irregularities, growing protests and increased government efforts to shut them down. This was the most closely followed story for 8%. According to PEJ, the Iranian elections took up 6% of the newshole.

Transition to Digital TV Widely Known

Most Americans say they heard a lot about the transition from analog to digital broadcasting for the nation’s television stations that went into effect on Friday, June 12. Three-quarters of the public (75%) say they heard a lot about the digital transition and another 18% say they heard a little about this. Just 7% of Americans say they had heard nothing about the change.

In early February, the federal government delayed the TV transition, initially set for Feb. 17, to give people more time to prepare. The public was also well aware of the impending change at that time. A poll conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 2 found that 81% had heard a lot about plans for the digital switch.

The story of two American journalists sentenced by North Korea to 12 years hard labor also registered widely with the public. About three-quarters of the public heard either a lot (44%) or a little (29%) about the jailing of the journalists. One-in-four (26%) say they had heard nothing at all about this.

Seven-in-ten Americans say they heard at least something about the feud between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and late night comedian David Letterman over jokes he told on his CBS show about Palin and one of her daughters (35% say they heard a lot, 36% heard a little). Last week, Palin and supporters criticized Letterman, who ultimately apologized this week. About half of all Republicans (49%) reported hearing a lot about this story compared with a third of Democrats (34%).

More people had heard about Palin and Letterman than about Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert taking his show, “The Colbert Report,” to Iraq to perform for U.S. troops. More than half (54%) say they had heard nothing at all about this. Overall, 13% say they heard a lot about Colbert doing his show in Iraq and another 33% say they heard a little about it. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say they heard something about Colbert entertaining U.S. troops (55% vs. 42%, respectively).

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 8-14, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected June 12-15, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,026 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.