July 8, 2009

Public Hearing More Negative News About Economy

Michael Jackson's Death Again Most Closely Followed Story

Summary of Findings

From January through May, a growing proportion of Americans said they were hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy. More recently, however, there has been a steady increase in the share saying that the economic news is mostly bad.

Currently, 41% say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy, edging up from 37% in June but 10 points higher than in May (31%). Over the past two months, the proportion reporting they are hearing a mix of good and bad news has fallen from 64% to 56%. Very few Americans (3% currently) continue to say they are hearing mostly good news about the economy.

The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted July 2-5 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that Americans are continuing to closely track news about the sudden death of pop singer Michael Jackson. A quarter of the public (25%) say they followed stories about Jackson’s death very closely last week, down slightly from the 30% a week earlier.

Still, Jackson’s death was once again the week’s top story. Three-in-ten cited reports about Jackson as their most closely followed story of the week, which was largely unchanged from the previous week (31%).

As was the case in initial reports about Jackson’s death, far more African Americans than whites are following reports about Jackson’s death very closely. Currently, 48% of blacks say they are tracking news about Jackson very closely compared with 20% of whites. In the first survey after Jackson’s death on June 25, 80% of blacks and 22% of whites said they were following news about Jackson very closely.

Coverage of Jackson’s death and its complicated aftermath dominated news coverage as well, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). With questions swirling about the cause of death, custody of his children and the fate of his fortune, the Jackson story took up 17% of the newshole examined. Stories about the economy ranked second, accounting for 10% of coverage.

The latest weekly News Interest Index was in the field when former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin made her surprise announcement July 3 that she was stepping down as governor of Alaska. Because that story broke late in the week, it accounted for just 3% of the total newshole, despite heavy coverage during the July 4th weekend. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that while Palin continues to be divisive figure with the general public, she remains very popular with Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans. [See “Romney’s Image Improves; Palin Well Regarded by Republican Base,”released June 24, 2009]

Continued Interest in Economic News

Americans also continued to keep a watch on economic developments last week. About four-in-ten (38%) say they followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely, similar to the 42% that said the same the week before. Nearly one-in-five (19%) say this was story they followed most closely last week.

Since May, more Americans see news about the economy as mostly bad, but the shift has been particularly notable among political independents.

Currently, 45% of independents say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy, compared with 39% in June and 32% in May. The share saying the economic news is a mix of good and bad has dropped from 63% in May to 54% now, similar to the 57% in June.

Among Republicans, 48% now say the economic news has been mostly bad; 50% say it has been a mix of good and bad. In May, 41% said the news was mostly bad, while 54% saw it as a mix of good and bad.

Among Democrats, 30% say the economic news has been mostly bad, compared with 21% in May. That month, almost three-quarters of Democrats (74%) saw the economic news as a mix of good and bad. Now that share is 64%, about the same as it was last month (65%).

Local Economic News Also Fairly Glum

More than four-in-ten (44%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy in their area, matching the share that said the same in April. Just less than half (47%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, roughly equal to the 49% that said the same in April.

But those perceptions differ, depending on how much people have heard about the financial problems facing states and municipalities grappling with declining tax revenues and increasing demand for services. More than four-in-ten (44%) say they have heard a lot about these problems, while 37% say they have heard a little and 19% say they have heard nothing at all.

Of those that have heard a lot, more than half (52%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy in their area, while 41% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news. The numbers are reversed for those who have heard only a little: 41% say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy in their area, while 52% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news.

In one of the states dealing with a budget crisis, California, about six-in-ten residents (58%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy in their area. That is significantly larger than the share that says they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the local economy (38%). Not surprisingly, just 2% of Californians say they are hearing mostly good news about local economic conditions.

Californians are more likely than the nation as a whole to report having heard about state and local budget problems. About six-in-ten (58%) California residents say they have heard a lot about the state and local budget troubles, while 33% report hearing a little about this. Just 9% say they have heard nothing at all about budget problems in the state. The survey included 123 Californians.

Top News Stories

The Jackson story and the economy dominated interest and coverage last week, but several other major stories also vied for public attention. One quarter say they very closely followed reports about U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraqi cities, a major step in the long running Iraqi conflict. One-in-ten says this was the story they followed most closely. Reporting about Iraq made up 6% of the newshole examined by PEJ.

More than one-in-five (22%) say they very closely followed developments in Iran in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election. But that was down from one week earlier, when three-in-ten (31%) said they were following developments very closely as the government cracked down on protesters. This was the story followed most closely by 9%. Coverage of developments in Iran dropped to 4% in the most recent week from 19% the week before.

Close to one-in-five (19%) say they very closely followed the U.S. Supreme Court decision that found a group of New Haven firefighters had been illegally denied promotion because of their race. The case has taken on additional national prominence because President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, was part of the appeals court panel whose judgment was overturned. For 5%, this was the story they followed more closely than any other. The court ruling accounted for 4% of the newshole.

A similar share (18%) says they very closely followed the sentencing of Bernard Madoff to 150 years in prison for his role in a multi-billion dollar investment fraud; 4% say this was the story they followed most closely. The share following Madoff’s sentencing very closely reflects a drop in interest from earlier stories dealing with revelations about the extent of his fraud in December (30% very closely) and his guilty plea in March (27% very closely). The media devoted 5% of coverage to Madoff’s sentencing.

Sanford’s Troubles Widely Known

Americans are much more likely to have heard a lot about South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s extramarital affair than the coup in Honduras last week or the final act in the fight over Minnesota’s second seat in the U.S. Senate.

Close to half (46%) of the public says they have heard a lot about Sanford’s admission of an affair with a woman from Argentina, while 36% say they have heard a little about this story. Just 17% say they have heard nothing at all.

Those numbers are significantly greater than the shares that say they have heard a lot about the coup in Honduras (17%) or the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision to declare Democrat Al Franken the winner in the disputed race for that state’s second seat in the U.S. Senate. About a third (34%) say they have heard a little about the coup, while close to half (49%) say they have heard nothing about this. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they have heard a little about Franken’s win, while a similar share (41%) say they have heard nothing at all about this.

Meanwhile, about three-in-ten (29%) say they have heard a lot about a recommendation from an FDA panel to impose restrictions on certain painkillers, including Tylenol and Vicodin, because they can cause liver damage. Close to four-in-ten (38%) say they have heard a little about this story and a third (33%) say they have heard nothing at all.

Fewer than two-in-ten (17%) say they have heard a lot about the 12-year-old girl who was the lone survivor of a plane crash in the Indian Ocean. Almost half (48%) say they have heard a little about this story, while about a third (35%) 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 29-July 5, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected July 2-5, 2009 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.