August 25, 2010

Mosque Debate Tops Coverage, But Not News Interest

More Republicans than Democrats Track Mosque Story

Summary of Findings

While the media focused on the emotionally-charged debate over plans to build an Islamic mosque and cultural center near the World Trade Center site in New York City last week, the public continued to track the Gulf oil leak.

About a third of the public (34%) says they followed news about the oil leak more closely than other major stories, 15% say they followed news about the economy most closely and 13% say they focused most closely on the mosque debate, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted Aug 19-22 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press among 1,003 adults. Another 9% say their top story was the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat forces from Iraq.

The controversy over the Islamic center accounted for 15% of news coverage, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), making it the most reported story of the week. The war in Iraq and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces accounted for 9% of the newshole, making it the second most reported story; economic news accounted for 7%. News about the oil leak took up just 3% of coverage. The public’s continued high interest likely reflects the perceived importance of the story.

Partisan Divide in Interest In Mosque

Republicans, Democrats and independents show comparable levels of interest in the Gulf oil leak and the economy, but Republicans express greater interest in the debate over the Islamic center in New York City and in the 2010 Congressional elections.
In total, 31% of the public says they followed news about the mosque debate very closely last week. More than four-in-ten Republicans (44%) say this, compared with 28% each of Democrats and independents.

A separate Pew Research analysis this week, based on questions included in the same survey, found about half of the public (51%) says they agree more with those who object to the building of the center than those who think the center should be allowed to be built (34%). Republicans are more likely to side with those who oppose building the center (74%) than are independents (50%) or Democrats (39%). (See: Public Remains Conflicted over Islam)

Those who say they followed the story more closely are also more likely to side with those who oppose building the Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center towers. Six-in-ten of those who followed the story very or fairly closely say they agree more with those who object to building the center, while 29% agree more with those who think the center should be allowed to be built; 11% offer no opinion. Among those following the story “not too closely” or not at all, opinion is divided: 40% say they agree more with opponents, 40% say they agree more with those who say the center should be built; 20% offer no opinion.

Looking at the mid-term elections, about two-in-ten (19%) say they followed news about this year’s elections very closely last week. More than a quarter of Republicans (27%) say they followed these stories very closely, compared with 16% of Democrats and 17% of independents. Just 4% say they followed news about the Congressional elections more closely than other major news stories. News about the elections accounted for 5% of coverage, according to PEJ.

On other stories, there is little difference among partisan groups. Looking at the public as a whole, 31% say they followed news about the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq very closely. That includes 35% of Republicans, 32% of Democrats and 29% of independents.

About four-in-ten say they very closely followed the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico (41%) and reports about the condition of the economy (39%). Again, the partisan differences are not significant.

Overall, about one-in-ten (11%) say they followed news about the floods in Pakistan very closely; 3% say this was the news they followed most closely. Partisans showed about the same level of interest. The floods made up 4% of coverage this week.

Public Widely Aware of Tainted Egg Recall

More than three quarters of the public say they heard at least a little last week about the recall of hundreds of millions of eggs after an outbreak of salmonella. Four-in-ten heard a lot about this, while 37% heard a little. Just more than two-in-ten (22%) say they heard nothing at all.

Half of those 50 and older say they heard a lot about the recall, compared with just a third (33%) of those 18 to 49.

About three-in-ten (31%) say they heard a lot about the verdict in the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Another 42% say they heard a little about a federal jury convicting Blagojevich on one count of lying to the FBI but deadlocking on the other charges. About a quarter (27%) say they heard nothing at all about this story.

Fewer than two-in-ten (17%) say they heard a lot about Dr. Laura Schlessinger announcing she will end her radio show after controversy over her use of a derogatory racial term. Close to four-in-ten (38%) say they heard a little about this, but 44% say they heard nothing at all.

Just 11% said they heard a lot about Glenn Beck’s rally planned for Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Another 17% say they heard a little about this, but 71% 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 August 16-22, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 19-22, from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 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 Thursday through Sunday 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 1,003 adults living in the continental United States, 18 years of age or older, from August 19-22, 2010 (672 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 331 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 120 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.