September 1, 2010

Mosque Debate, Egg Recall Top Public Interest

Public Divided Over Tone of Mosque Fight

Summary of Findings

No one story dominated the public’s news interest last week, as several story lines – including the debate over a mosque near Ground Zero in New York and the recall of hundreds of millions of eggs – vied for Americans’ attention.

About two-in-ten (19%) say they followed the debate over plans for an Islamic cultural center and mosque in downtown Manhattan more closely than other major stories. A comparable number (16%) say they followed the recall of more than half a billion eggs after an outbreak of salmonella most closely, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted Aug. 26-29 among 1002 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

As summer neared an end, the media also divided its attention among several top stories. The 2010 elections accounted for 14% of the newshole and stories examining New Orleans and the Gulf Coast five years after Hurricane Katrina made up another 11%, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). The debate over the New York Islamic center accounted for 6% of coverage, while the egg recall made up 4%.

Looking at the amount of coverage for certain stories, a third of the public (33%) says news organizations have given the mosque story too much coverage. A comparable 37% say the story received the right amount of attention, while 22% say it received too little. On the other hand, most (60%) say the egg recall received the right amount of coverage.

Plight of Chilean Miners and Floods in Pakistan Top Beck Rally

Close to eight-in-ten say they heard at least a little last week about the 33 miners found alive but still trapped in Chile; 37% say they heard a lot about this, while 41% heard a little. Another 21% say they heard nothing at all.

About seven-in-ten say they heard at least a little about the flooding in Pakistan and its aftermath; 26% heard a lot and 43% heard a little about this. Three-in-ten say they heard nothing at all about the flooding.

Just more than four-in-ten say they heard at least a little about the large rally in Washington on Saturday, Aug. 28, organized by talk show host Glenn Beck; 16% say they heard a lot about the rally, while 26% say they heard a little.

Nearly six-in-ten (58%), however, say they heard nothing at all about the event held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” at the same site. Roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats say they heard at least a little about this story (47% of Republicans, 46% of Democrats). Slightly fewer independents (37%) say they heard at least a little about this.

The rally took place while the survey was in the field. Awareness of the event was greater on Saturday and Sunday than during the previous two days. (The number saying they had heard nothing at all about the rally dropped from 62% before the weekend to 49% on Saturday and Sunday).

Just 14% say they heard a lot about former President Jimmy Carter traveling to North Korea to negotiate the release of a jailed American. While 42% say they heard a little about this, another 44% say they heard nothing at all.

A comparable 14% say they heard a lot about a federal judge’s ruling that blocked expansion of stem cell research using federal funds; 36% heard a little about this, while nearly half (49%) say they heard nothing at all.

Most Say Egg Recall Getting Right Amount of Coverage

Six-in-ten say news organizations have given the right amount of coverage to the recall of more than half a billion eggs after an outbreak of salmonella. About two-in-ten (21%) say this food safety story has gotten too little coverage, while 14% say it has gotten too much attention.

Nearly half of the public (48%) say the flooding in Pakistan has received the right amount of coverage; 33% say the flooding received too little coverage, while 10% say too much.

Opinions are more divided about coverage of the debate over the planned Islamic center and mosque in lower Manhattan. A third of the public says news organizations are giving too much coverage to the debate, while a comparable 37% say the story has received the right amount of coverage. Another 22% say it has received too little coverage. Partisans offer similar answers. For example, 40% of Republicans say the story got the right amount of coverage, compared with 35% of Democrats and 37% of independents.

The public is also divided over the amount of coverage given to the Beck rally: 24% say the event received too much coverage, 31% say too little and 27% say it got the right amount of coverage. Nearly three-in-ten Democrats (28%) say the rally received too much coverage, compared with 19% of Republicans; 26% of independents agree. On the other hand, 33% of Republicans say the rally got the right amount of coverage, compared with 23% of Democrats. Just over a quarter of independents (27%) agree.

Half say that the federal judge’s ruling that blocked expansion of stem cell research using federal funds got too little coverage. Three-in-ten say it got the right amount, while just 7% say it got too little. Close to six-in-ten Democrats (57%) say this story got too little coverage, compared with 42% of Republicans; 53% of independents agree.

Tone of Debate Over New York Mosque

Americans are also divided over the tone of the mosque debate: 37% say the debate has been polite and respectful while a comparable 39% say it has been rude and disrespectful. About a quarter (24%) offer no opinion.

Among those who see the debate as rude and disrespectful, most (59% of that group) say those who oppose building the Islamic center are mostly to blame for this; 25% say those who think the center should be built should bear most of the blame. Another 8% volunteer that both sides share blame for the tone of the debate and an equal 8% say they don’t know.

Last September, more than half (53%) of the public characterized the debate then underway over health care reform as rude and disrespectful; 31% said it was polite and respectful. Among those who said the debate had been rude and disrespectful, most (59% of that group) blamed opponents of the legislation; 17% blamed supporters, 17% volunteered that both sides shared the blame and 7% said they did not know.

Looking at the current debate, Republicans (53%) are more likely than Democrats (30%) or independents (35%) to say they see the debate as polite and respectful. Fully 45% of Democrats characterize the debate as rude and disrespectful, compared with 32% of Republicans. Nearly four-in-ten independents (39%) share this view.

Among Democrats who see the debate as rude, 71% say those who think the center should not be built are to blame, 18% say those who think it should be built are to blame and 6% say both. Among Republicans who see the debate this way, 50% blame opponents of the plan, while 33% blame those who think the center should be built; 12% say both. And among independents who see the debate as rude, 58% blame those who think the center should not be built, 28% blame those who think it should and 7% say both sides share the blame.

The Week’s Top Stories

The recall of more than half a billion eggs because of an outbreak of salmonella was among the week’s most closely followed stories (16% most closely), while it accounted for 4% of the newshole measured by PEJ. About three-in-ten (31%) say they followed this news very closely. That nearly matches the 33% that said they followed news very closely in early 2009 about the recall of peanut products after another salmonella outbreak.

Nearly three-in-ten (28%) say they very closely followed the debate over plans for an Islamic center in lower Manhattan; 19% say this was the story they followed most closely. The controversy accounted for 6% of coverage, down from 15% one week earlier.

A quarter say they followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely, while 13% say this was the news they followed most closely. Reporting on Iraq made up 3% of coverage.

More than two-in-ten (22%) say they followed news about the U.S. housing market very closely; this was the most closely followed story for 10% of the public. News about the housing market made up 2% of coverage, while news about the economy overall – including the housing coverage – accounted for 9%.

Nearly two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about the Katrina anniversary very closely, while 8% say this was the news they followed most closely. Reporting on the five year anniversary made up 11% of coverage.

News about the 2010 elections – including a series of August primaries – made up the single largest share of coverage (14%). Two-in-ten say they followed this news very closely, while 6% say it was the news they followed most closely.

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 23-29, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 26-29, 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 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 26-29, 2010 (672 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 330 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 132 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.