May 19, 2010

Gulf Oil Leak Dominates Public’s News Interests

Few Want Media to Focus on Court Nominees' Personal Lives

Summary of Findings

As oil from an undersea well continued to flow into the Gulf of Mexico last week, Americans tracked the worsening environmental disaster much more closely than any other major news story.

About half (49%) say this was the story they followed most closely. Press coverage was divided between the oil leak (17% of coverage) and Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court (13%); just 5% of the public cited Kagan’s nomination as their top story of the week.

The latest News Interest Index survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 13-16 among 1,002 adults, finds that the public wants the news media to give a lot of attention to a Supreme Court nominee’s professional background (65%), education (61%) and views on issues that might come before the court (61%). By contrast, just 19% say the news media should focus a lot of attention on a nominee’s religion while 17% say the media should focus a lot on a nominee’s personal life and family.

Interest in Kagan Nomination

About two-in-ten (22%) say they followed news about Elena Kagan’s nomination very closely, putting interest in the range of other recent Supreme Court nominations. Slightly more (29%) said they followed Sotomayor’s nomination very closely last year (May 29-June 1); 21% said they followed Samuel Alito’s nomination very closely in November 2005 and 22% said they followed the nomination of Harriet Miers very closely one month earlier. Miers’ nomination was withdrawn after questions were raised about her qualifications for the post.

There has been somewhat less coverage initially for Kagan than there was for Sotomayor. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), news about Sotomayor accounted for 24% of the news hole shortly after Obama announced her nomination to the Supreme Court last May; news about Kagan last week accounted for 13% of all news coverage, according to PEJ.

And somewhat fewer say they have learned at least some about Kagan (41% a lot or some) than said that about Sotomayor a year ago (51% a lot or some). More than half (57%) say they have heard either just a little about Kagan (27%) or nothing at all (30%). That compares with 49% who heard little or nothing about Sotomayor last year.

About four-in-ten (41%) say press coverage of Kagan has been fair, while 18% say it has not been critical enough and 11% say it has been too critical; a relatively large minority (30%) offered no opinion of the coverage. A year ago, about as many (45%) said coverage of Sotomayor was fair, while fewer (17%) expressed no opinion.

As expected, there are wide partisan differences in opinions about coverage of Kagan. Most Democrats (54%) say the coverage has been fair, while 15% say it has been too critical and just 8% say it has not been critical enough. Among Republicans, about as many say the press has not been critical enough of Kagan (30%) as say it has been fair (31%). A plurality of independents (40%) say the coverage has been fair while 20% say it has not been critical enough.

Pluralities of both men and women say the press has treated Kagan fairly, but men are more likely to say the press has not been sufficiently critical of her (23%) than are women (13%).

A majority of those who oppose Kagan’s confirmation (53%) say the press has not been sufficiently critical of her, a view shared by just 7% of those who support her joining the Supreme Court. Those who favor her appointment are far more likely to say the press has been fair (64% vs. 35%) or too critical (21% vs. 6%).

The Pew Research Center/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, sponsored by SHRM, found that 33% favor Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court, 21% are opposed, while nearly half (46%) have no opinion. Initial reactions to Sotomayor’s confirmation were much more positive: In June 2009, 50% favored her confirmation, 25% were opposed while 25% had no opinion. (See Public’s Priorities, Financial Regs, May 18, 2010.)

Public Wants Media to Focus on Credentials, Not Personal Lives

Sizeable majorities say the press should pay a lot of attention to a nominee’s professional background (65%), views on issues that may come before the court (61%) and educational background (61%).

Many also say a nominee’s involvement in politics (50%) and writings and speeches (45%) deserve a lot of attention. Far fewer say the same about a nominee’s religion and religious views (19%) or personal life and family (17%).

More than half (54%) say that a nominee’s religion or religious beliefs should receive just a little attention from the news media (20%) or no attention at all (34%). Similarly, most (53%) say a nominee’s personal life and family should get little (24%) or no attention (29%).

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that many of the characteristics of court nominees warrant a lot of attention, though partisans are about equally likely to say a lot of coverage should be devoted to writings and speeches and personal life and family. In addition, those who do not want Kagan confirmed are more likely than those who support her confirmation to say most of these issues should get a lot of press attention.

The Week’s News

The percentage of Americans who say they followed news about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico very closely has grown sharply – along with the scope and potential impact of the crisis – since the initial explosion on an off-shore oil rig on April 20 that left 11 dead.

About six-in-ten (58%) say they followed this story very closely last week, up from 46% one week earlier. The week of April 23-26, about two-in-ten (21%) said they followed news about the initial rig explosion very closely. Interest is high across demographic and political groups.

About half of the public (49%) say this was the story they followed most closely. News about the leak and the crisis in the gulf made up 17% of the newshole, according to PEJ. The story has been among the top five in terms of coverage for the last four weeks.

Fully 49% say they followed news about the economy very closely last week, while 13% say this was the news they followed most closely. According to PEJ, news about the economy accounted for 6% of coverage, not including news about the European financial bailout.

About three-in-ten (31%) say they very closely followed news about the current situation and events in Iraq; 5% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about Iraq accounted for 1% of the newshole.

About two-in-ten (21%) say they very closely followed news about the European financial bailout, just about matching the 22% that say they followed Kagan’s nomination very closely. Just 3% say the European bailout was the news they followed most closely; this story made up 5% of coverage.

Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) say they very closely followed news about David Cameron, leader of Great Britain’s Conservative Party, becoming the nation’s prime minister; 1% say this was the story they followed most closely. News about the change in power in Britain accounted for 2% of the newshole.

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 May 10-16, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 13-16, from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 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. (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 this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a national sample of 1,002 adults living in the continental United States, 18 years of age or older, from May 13-16, 2010 (670 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 332 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 117 who had no landline telephone). Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English.

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin, region, and population density to parameters from the March 2009 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The sample is also weighted to match current patterns of telephone status based on extrapolations from the 2009 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size within the landline sample. 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 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.