May 5, 2010

Gulf Coast Oil Spill Grabs Public Attention

Most Have Basic Knowledge About Spill, Arizona Immigration Law

Summary of Findings

As a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico spread toward the Louisiana coastline last week, the public focused on the unfolding story of a potential environmental disaster.

The spill dominated the public’s consciousness. It was the story people were most likely to say they talked about with friends. The percentage following it very closely doubled from one week earlier and a large majority of Americans know where the crisis is unfolding.

About four-in-ten (41%) say this was the story they followed most closely last week, much greater than the 21% that say they most closely followed news about Arizona’s controversial new law targeting illegal immigrants. When asked what story they were talking about with friends, 26% mention the Gulf Coast oil spill, while 12% offer the debate over the new Arizona immigration law, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted April 30-May 3 among 1,011 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Large percentages also have basic knowledge of these heavily covered stories. In a separate survey, 82% correctly named Louisiana as the state off of whose coast the disaster occurred. About as many (79%) chose Arizona when asked which state recently passed a law that gives police more authority to question people they suspect might be illegal immigrants. By contrast, just 44% identified Charlie Crist of Florida as the Republican governor who announced last week that he would run for a seat in the U.S. Senate as an independent.

For its part, the media devoted the bulk of coverage last week to these stories and the economy. The oil spill and the immigration debate each made up 16% of the newshole analyzed by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Meanwhile, economic news totaled 24% of coverage, with the largest shares devoted to coverage of Goldman Sachs and allegations of fraud against the company (9%), the debate over strengthening Wall Street regulation (6%) and the economic crisis in Greece (3% of newshole). Other economic news made up another 6% of coverage.

Growing Interest in the Gulf Crisis

More than four-in-ten Americans (44%) say they very closely followed news last week about the large amount of oil leaking into the waters off the Louisiana coast. A week earlier, just 21% said they were very closely following news about the off-shore oil rig explosion on April 20 that left 11 dead. That accident triggered the underwater oil release. This week’s number is the highest for an oil spill since May 4-7, 1989, when 52% said they were very closely following news about the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska late that March.

Among partisans, Democrats are more likely to say they followed the current oil spill story very closely than Republicans (49% vs. 39%). Interest among independents falls in between (45%).

The rapidly expanding spill also had people talking: 26% say this was the news they talked about with friends. No other story comes close. Just more than one-in-ten (12%) say they talked with friends about Arizona’s new law targeting illegal immigrants, 5% talked about sports or health care reform, while 4% each talked about the Times Square bomb scare – which took place on May 1 as the survey was in the field, crime or the weather.

More than a third (36%) say they very closely followed news about Arizona’s new law giving police more authority to question people they suspect might be illegal immigrants. There are no significant differences among partisans. About two-in-ten (21%) say this was the news they followed most closely.

Interest in the debate over immigration policies is up to its highest levels since mid-2006. That May, as lawmakers considered immigration legislation in Washington and protests were held by immigrants and supporters in several American cities, 44% said they following the issue very closely.

About a third of the public (32%) says they followed news about the economy very closely last week, while 11% say this was the news they followed most closely. Americans also kept a close watch on several elements of the economic story. About two-in-ten (19%) say they followed proposals for stricter regulation of banks and financial institutions very closely; 2% say this was the news they followed most closely.

Just fewer than two-in-ten (17%) say they followed news about the appearance of Goldman Sachs executives before Congress to face questioning about the company’s role in the economic crisis; 5% say this was the story they followed most closely. Just 6% say they followed news about the financial crisis in Greece very closely. This was the most closely followed story for 1%.

Most Know Facts about Top Stories

In a separate survey conducted April 29-May 2, about eight-in-ten (82%) correctly choose Louisiana from four options as the state closest to the spill now threatening the coastline. A similar number (79%) know that it is Arizona that recently enacted the law dealing with when police can question people about their immigration status. Two-thirds (67%) know that Goldman Sachs is the Wall Street firm facing a fraud lawsuit brought by the government.

Smaller numbers pick Greece from four European nations as the government facing a severe financial crisis (49%) or know that Florida’s Charlie Crist is the Republican governor who announced last week that he would run for the state’s open U.S. senate seat as an independent. About four-in-ten (41%) say they did not know or did not answer the Crist question, while 35% say they did not know on the Greece question. About three-in-ten (29%) got all five questions correct.

As in previous Pew Research knowledge surveys, there are substantial demographic differences in awareness of facts about current stories. Even so, large majorities across all demographic categories identified Louisiana as the state near the oil spill and Arizona as state that recently passed the immigration law giving police greater powers. Goldman Sachs also is widely known as the firm being sued for fraud, although college graduates (89%) are far more likely than those with a high school education (47%) to know this.

Differences among partisans are fairly small on the questions that most answered correctly, but they widen on the other two. Half of Republicans and nearly that many independents (47%) could name Crist as the independent Senate candidate from Florida, compared with 38% of Democrats. On the Greek financial crisis, 51% of Republicans and 55% of independents answered this question correctly, compared with 38% of Democrats.

Sandra Bullock News Registers More Widely Than British Elections

About seven-in-ten Americans have heard at least a little about actress Sandra Bullock’s plans to divorce her husband and her recent adoption of a baby boy: 31% say they have heard a lot about these developments and 40% say they have heard a little. Women are much more likely to say they have heard a lot about developments in the actress’s life than men (42% vs. 18%).

Fewer than two-in-ten (17%) say they heard a lot about Crist’s announcement that he would run for Florida’s open seat in the U.S. Senate as an independent instead of as a Republican. About a third (34%) say they heard a little about this, while close to
half (49%) say they had heard nothing at all. There was no significant difference among partisans in the numbers who say they heard a lot about this story.

Few of those surveyed had heard much about the upcoming elections in Great Britain. Just 6% say they heard a lot about the elections, while 31% say they heard a little. More than six-in-ten (63%) say they heard nothing at all about this.

The public also heard little about a large-scale brawl in the Ukrainian Parliament, widely viewed on television and the internet, that involved punching, hair pulling, egg throwing and smoke bombs. Just 5% say they heard a lot about the fight, 27% say they heard a little, but close to seven-in-ten (68%) say they 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 April 26-May 2, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected April 30-May 3, from a nationally representative sample of 1,011 adults. A separate survey, conducted April 29-May 2 from a nationally representative sample of 1,009 adults, included the knowledge questions about recent news events.

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. (For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.) 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 landline telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, under the direction of Infogroup/ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). The sample is produced by ORC from data provided by Marketing Systems Group. Interviews are conducted in English. Data are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, region and population density to parameters from the March 2009 Census Bureau’s Current Population survey. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the current survey, conducted April 30-May 3, 2010:

An additional survey was conducted April 29-May 2, which included the five questions concerning knowledge of current events. The following table shows the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups for that survey:

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.