July 1, 2009

Coverage of Jackson’s Death Seen As Excessive

Blacks Track News of Icon's Death Much More Closely than Whites

Summary of Findings

The public closely tracked the sudden death of pop superstar Michael Jackson last week, though nearly two-in-three Americans say news organizations gave too much coverage to the story. At the same time, half say the media struck the right balance between reporting on Jackson’s musical legacy and the problems in his personal life.

With reports about Jackson’s June 25th death in Los Angeles dominating media coverage at week’s end, 30% say they followed these stories very closely. A similar share (31%) say this was the story they followed more closely than any other, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted June 26-29 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Blacks followed the death of the African American singer – who had been on the national stage for four decades – more closely than the population as a whole. Eight-in-ten African Americans say they followed news about Jackson’s death very closely, compared with 22% of whites. Women followed the story more closely than men (35% very closely compared with 26%). Close to four-in-ten (38%) of those under 40 say they followed the music icon’s death very closely, compared with 27% of those between 40 and 64 and 20% of those 65 and older.

A separate analysis of media coverage by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that for the entire week of June 22-28 the Jackson story and the bloody aftermath of the disputed Iranian elections received similar levels of media coverage. The protests in Iran made up 19% of the newshole for the week, while the Jackson story took up 18%. But from the time the Jackson story broke Thursday afternoon to the end of the day Friday, 60% of the news coverage studied was devoted to his death, his life story and his legacy, according to PEJ. Iran coverage dropped to 7% of the newshole in that same time period.

About two-thirds of the public (64%) say news organizations gave too much attention to the death of the 50-year-old performer, who had been rehearsing for a major comeback tour. About three-in-ten (29%) say the coverage was the right amount. Only 3% say there had been too little coverage.

When asked about the content of the coverage, 26% say the media focused too much on the scandals and personal problems in the life of the self-proclaimed “King of Pop”; 11% say the coverage focused too much on Jackson’s successful musical career. Half say news organizations struck the right balance.

More than half of African Americans (54%) say the amount of coverage has been about right, compared with 25% of whites. Seven-in-ten whites say there has been too much coverage, compared with 36% of blacks.

About half of African Americans (47%) also say that the coverage has focused too much on the scandals and personal problems in Jackson’s life, compared with 22% of whites. On this question, there is little difference by gender: 28% of women say the coverage focused too much on scandal, compared with 24% of men. About a quarter of those under 40 (24%), say coverage has focused too much on Jackson’s personal problems, compared with 28% of those 40-64 and those 65 and older.

The Week’s Top Stories

The Jackson story grabbed people’s attention late in what had already been a busy news week with continuing developments in Iran, debate in Washington on health care reform, an infidelity scandal involving South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and a train crash in Washington, D.C., that left nine dead.

By way of comparison, the 30% that say they followed the Jackson story very closely is similar to the 28% that followed the death of Tim Russert, the NBC newsman, very closely in June 2008 and the 30% that followed the death of Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” very closely in September 2006. Still, interest in Jackson’s death is far less than the 54% who said they followed the sudden deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. in July 1999 and Princess Diana in September 1997.

Meanwhile, a similar share (29%) very closely followed the announcement of criminal charges against Jackson alleging child molestation in November 2003. A smaller share (13%) said they very closely followed Jackson’s acquittal in the California case in June 2005.

In other news, about three-in-ten (31%) say they very closely followed the Iranian government’s crackdown on election protesters last week. That’s comparable to the 28% that said they were following the post-election protests in Iran very closely one week earlier and indicates continued strong interest in the story. Close to two-in-ten (18%) say they followed developments in Iran more closely than any other story.

A comparable share (29%) say they followed reports about the debate in Washington on health care reform very closely. About two-in-ten (19%) say they followed the health care debate more closely than any other major story. Those stories made up 7% of coverage, according to PEJ.

A smaller percentage (16%) say they followed Congressional passage of legislation intended to limit greenhouse gases. That story was followed most closely by 6% and accounted for 2% of the newshole.

Another 16% say they very closed followed Gov. Mark Sanford’s acknowledgement of an affair with an Argentinean woman; 4% say this was the story they followed most closely. The media devoted 11% of the newshole to stories about Sanford.

Close to two-in-ten (18%) say they very closely followed news about the crash involving two commuter trains in Washington, D.C., that left nine people dead. For 3%, this was the story they followed most closely. The media devoted 5% of the newshole to this story.

Many Know the Fate of Jon and Kate

More than half of the public say they have heard at least a little about the announcement that Jon and Kate Gosselin, the stars of the TLC reality show “Jon & Kate Plus Eight,” had filed for divorce. About a quarter (27%) say they had heard a lot about this, while 36% say that had heard a little. Another 36% say they had heard nothing at all about the plans for the parents of young twins and sextuplets to separate.

More than a third of women (35%) have heard a lot about the marriage troubles, compared with 18% of men. Close to half of women under 50 (46%) say they have heard a lot about this.

Just 14% say they have heard a lot about singer Chris Brown’s plea of guilty last week to an assault charge involving an attack on pop star Rihanna. Four-in-ten (41%) heard a little about this, while 45% say they have heard nothing at all. In mid-March, a third (33%) said they had heard a lot about Brown’s troubled relationship with Rihanna after allegations surfaced that he had assaulted her.

About one-in-ten (9%) say they have heard a lot about Steve Jobs’ liver transplant. A third (33%) have heard a little about the Apple chairman’s operation, while close to six-in-ten (58%) have heard nothing at all.

And 8% say they have heard a lot about reporters’ questions to President Obama about whether he still occasionally smokes cigarettes. Four-in-ten (41%) say they heard a little about this, but half say they have heard nothing at all.

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 22-28, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected June 25-28, 2009 (N=1,007) and June 26-29, 2009 (N=1,022) from a nationally representative sample of 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.