May 26, 2010

Public, Media Track Oil Spill, Diverge On Elections

More Talking About Jobs, Economy, Corruption than in 2006

Summary of Findings

Americans stayed focused on the unfolding oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last week, while the effort to cap the underwater well and limit the damage was one of two stories that dominated media coverage.

The media devoted comparable levels of coverage to the spill and news about last week’s primaries and the 2010 midterm elections (each accounted for 18% of the newshole), but the public showed much less interest in the political developments (5% followed this most closely) than the crisis in the gulf (46% most closely).

The latest News Interest Index survey, conducted May 20-23 among 1,002 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that the news topics that come up frequently in conversation have changed markedly in recent years: Far more people say they frequently discuss the job situation, the economy and political corruption with their family and friends than did so in 2006; by contrast, far fewer say that gas and energy prices, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorism come up frequently in conversation.

Notably, just 27% of the public says that political campaigns and elections come up frequently in conversation – the lowest percentage of 11 items tested. But fully half (51%) of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say politics is a frequent topic of their conversations.

As Congress works to finish legislation regulating financial institutions, the public’s perceptions of the issue are similar to its views of the issue of health care reform late last year: Large percentages say the issue is important (87%) and affects them personally (72%), while 60% find it interesting. However, 62% say the issue of financial regulation is hard to understand.

More than four-in-ten (42%) say the media is giving too little coverage to the proposals for stricter regulation of banks and financial institutions. On the other hand, nearly six-in-ten (59%) say the media is giving the right amount of coverage to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Topics That Get People Talking

In September 2006, just before the previous midterm election, gas and energy prices dominated conversations (75%), followed by the economy (54%) and the war in Iraq (54%).

Today, with the nation climbing out of a deep recession, the economy (68%) and the job situation (65%) are the top conversation topics. Four years ago, just 42% said they talked frequently with friends and family about the job situation.

Far fewer people are talking frequently about terrorism (47% to 32%) or war (54% to 36%) than did so in 2006. Currently, 56% say they frequently talk with friends and family about gas and energy prices, down 19 points from four years ago. Other issues, including immigration (37%), education (54%), health care (56%) and the environment (39%), remain near the levels they were at in the fall of 2006.

A greater percentage, however, say they talk frequently about corruption in government. Almost half of the public (49%) now say they frequently talk about this, up 13 points from September 2006 (36%).

Four years ago, as Democrats sought to take control of Congress, more Democrats (42%) and independents (38%) than Republicans (26%) said they frequently talked about corruption in government with friends and family. Today, as Republicans try to retake control, they are twice as likely as they were in 2006 to say they talk about corruption frequently (54%). Independents also are more likely to talk about this frequently (38% to 53%). Among Democrats, the percentage is essentially unchanged (42% to 43%).

Those who agree with the Tea Party movement, meanwhile, are much more likely than those who disagree to say they talk about corruption frequently (69% versus 46%).

Overall, 25% say they agree with the Tea Party movement, 18% disagree, while 57% either offer no opinion of the Tea Party movement (32%) or have not heard of the Tea Party (25%), according to findings from this survey released May 24 as part of the weekly Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll (See Willingness to Compromise a Plus in Midterms, May 24, 2010).

Political campaigns and elections rank low on the list of news topics people discuss frequently (27%). More Republicans (40%) say they discuss this frequently with friends and neighbors than do Democrats (23%) or independents (26%), and those who say they agree with the Tea Party movement are much more likely to say they frequently discuss campaigns than do those who disagree with the Tea Party or those who have never heard of the movement or have no opinion of it.

Financial Regulations “Important” But “Hard to Understand”

Nearly nine-in-ten Americans (87%) say efforts to enact legislation dealing with regulation of banks and financial institutions are important; about the same percentage said the debate over health care was important last December (93%).

However, most people find financial reform difficult to understand, just as they did with the health care debate. About six in ten (62%) say financial reform is “hard to understand.” In December 2009, 69% said the debate over health care reform was hard to understand. About three-in-ten (32%) say the current debate is easy to understand, nearly matching the 29% that said this about health care reform late last year.

A large majority says financial reform will affect them personally (72%), while six-in-ten say they find the banking legislation interesting. Last December, 80% said the health care debate would affect them personally and 70% said they found the debate interesting.

Most Say Oil Leak Getting Right Amount of Coverage

Almost six-in-ten Americans (59%) say the media is giving the right amount of coverage to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Just 14% say this story has received too much coverage; about a quarter (24%) say it has gotten too little.

More than four-in-ten (42%) say the proposals for stricter regulation of banks and financial institutions have gotten too little coverage, while 39% say these proposals have gotten the right amount of coverage. Just 11% say this issue has gotten too much coverage.

Opinions are more divided about coverage of the Tea Party movement. A third (34%) say the movement has gotten too little coverage, 28% say it has gotten the right amount and 24% say it has gotten too much. A majority of those who agree with the Tea Party movement (52%) say it has gotten too little coverage. About three-in-ten (31%) say it has gotten the right amount of coverage and 14% say it has gotten too much.

Not surprisingly, those who disagree with the movement have a different take: 57% say it has gotten too much coverage, 29% say it has gotten the right amount and 10% say it has gotten too little.

Among partisans, 44% of Republicans say the Tea Party movement has gotten too little coverage, compared with 25% of Democrats. Nearly four-in-ten independents (38%) agree. On the other hand, 35% of Democrats say the Tea Partiers have gotten too much coverage, compared with 20% of Republicans and 18% of independents.

The Week’s News

Almost half of the public (47%) says they followed news about the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico very closely last week, while 46% say this was the story they followed most closely. The week after the story broke with the deadly April 20 explosion on an off-shore oil rig 21% said they were following very closely. T
hat jumped to 44% the following week as oil rushed into the ocean. Two weeks ago, 58% said they were following this story very closely.

Four-in-ten say they very closely followed news about the economy, while 15% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about the economy made up 6% of coverage according to PEJ, not including news about the regulatory reform debate.

Just more than two-in-ten (22%) say they very closely followed developments in Afghanistan; 7% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about Afghanistan accounted for 3% of the newshole.

A similar percentage (23%) says they very closely followed news about the congressional elections; 5% say this was the news they followed most closely. The media devoted 18% of the newshole to the congressional elections. In October 2006, just before that year’s midterm elections, 21% said they were following these stories very closely.

Among partisans, 29% of Republicans say they followed this news very closely, compared with 20% of Democrats and 22% of independents. Close to half of those who say they agree with the Tea Party movement (46%) say they followed the election news very closely. About three-in-ten (29%) of those who disagree with the movement say the same. Just 11% of those who never heard of the Tea Party movement or offered no opinion of it followed the elections very closely.

About two-in-ten (22%) of the public say they very closely followed news about proposals for stricter regulation of banks and financial institutions; 4% say they followed this news most closely. The debate over new financial regulations accounted for 5% of coverage.

Just 7% very closely followed news about the government crackdown on protesters in Thailand. This story accounted for 2% of coverage.

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 17-23, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 20-23, 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 20-23, 2010 (672 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 330 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 127 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.

Cite this publication: “Public, Media Track Oil Spill, Diverge On Elections.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 26, 2010) http://www.people-press.org/2010/05/26/public-media-track-oil-spill-diverge-on-elections/, accessed on July 23, 2014.