February 9, 2011

Public Now More Focused on Egypt, but Coverage Far Surpasses Interest

Most Hearing Bad News about Gas Prices

Summary of Findings

The public’s interest in news about the massive anti-government protests in Egypt surged last week, but did not keep pace with the growth in media coverage.

About a third (32%) of the public says they followed news about the protests in Egypt very closely last week. That’s nearly double the 17% that said this one week earlier.

Three-in-ten Americans (30%) say they followed news about the protests more closely than any other story, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted Feb. 3-6 among 1,001 adults. The previous week, just 11% said the protests were their top story.

But the many elements of the Egypt story accounted for 56% of media coverage last week, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). That is among the highest levels of coverage for any story since PEJ started its weekly analysis four years ago – and the highest for a foreign news story. One week earlier, the protests accounted for 20% of coverage. (For more, see “Events in Egypt Trigger Record Coverage”.)

Despite increased public interest in the protests, about as many Americans (26%) say the story they followed most closely last week was the powerful winter storm system that hit the Midwest and the Northeast. That story accounted for just 8% of all news coverage, according to PEJ.

Attention to Egypt Lags Behind Haiti Quake and Chilean Miners

Interest in the Egyptian protests is relatively high for a foreign news story that does not directly involve the United States. But there was greater public interest in two recent overseas disasters, which were covered less than the Egyptian protests.

In January 2010, close to six-in-ten (57%) said the earthquake that devastated Haiti was the story they followed most closely that week. Six-in-ten (60%) said they followed this news very closely. News about Haiti that week accounted for 41% of the newshole that week.

Last October, 40% said the story they followed most closely was the rescue of a group of Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for months. Nearly half (49%) said they followed this news very closely. The story accounted for 21% of coverage for the week.

In April 2009, the public took a strong interest in news about pirates commandeering ships off the coast of Somalia. About a third (34%) said this was the story they followed most closely that week; 41% said they were following this news very closely. News about the pirates made up 16% of the newshole.

Many Say Events at Home Matter More

Many Americans say the issues surrounding the Egyptian protests are difficult to fully comprehend and, at a time of continuing economic trouble at home, most say they are more concerned with what is going on in the United States. Close to three-quarters (73%) say that while this story is important, “there are issues in the United States that concern me more.”

About half (52%) say they feel they lack the background information to really know what is going on in the Egyptian crisis.

Few say they find it hard to identify with the people who are protesting in Egypt (26%); 67% say that is not the case. And most disagree with the notion that the news is changing so quickly they cannot keep up (64%). About a third (34%) say they do feel that way.

Few say they are keeping constant tabs on the evolving story. Just under three-in-ten (28%) say they find themselves checking in on the events in Egypt several times a day; 72% say that is not the case. And just 11% say they have gotten updates about events in Egypt on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter; 89% say they have not.

Those following news about the protests very closely offer only slightly different answers from those following less closely. Fully 70% of those following very closely say that while
this is important news, there are issues at home that concern them more. Three quarters of those following less closely agree (75%).

Those not paying close attention to Egypt news are more likely to say they do not have the background information to know what is really going on. Few Americans, irrespective of their level of interest, say they find it hard to identify with the protesters.

Not surprisingly, those following very closely are much more likely to say they have been checking in on events on Egypt several times a day (58% vs. 14%). And only small percentages in each group say they have gotten updates on the situation through social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

Public Still Hearing Mixed News on Economy

A majority of the public continues to say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy. At the same time, more than three-quarters (77%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about gas prices.

About two-thirds (64%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, down slightly from the 68% that said this in early January. About three-in-ten (29%) report hearing mostly bad news. Just 6% say they are hearing mostly good news about economic conditions.

These numbers have changed only slightly since January, when perceptions of the economic news mix proved much more positive than one month earlier. In January, 24% said economic news was mostly bad, a drop of 15 points from 39% in December.

Among partisans, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to report hearing mostly bad news about the economy (32% vs. 23%, respectively), but the gap has changed little since it narrowed in January. Majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (69%) and independents (67%) report hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy.

Mostly Bad News About Gas Prices

Looking at various sectors of the economy, more than three quarters of Americans (77%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about gas prices, while about half say they are hearing mostly bad news about the job situation (52%), housing values (51%) and food and consumer prices (49%).

About two-in-ten (18%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about gas prices while just 2% say they are hearing mostly good news.

The percentage saying they are hearing mostly bad news about jobs and housing has dropped since December. In late 2010, 66% said that job news was mostly bad and 62% said they were hearing mostly bad news about real estate values.

Impressions of news about the financial markets have improved slightly since December. Currently, 46% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news, 31% say they are hearing mostly bad news and 17% say they are hearing mostly good news. In December, 44% said they were hearing mixed news, 38% said they were hearing mostly bad news and 13% said they were hearing mostly good news.

By contrast, more Americans report hearing bad news about consumer prices now than in December (49% now, 41% then). That is the highest level saying that since the question was first asked in June 2009. The percentage hearing mostly good news about prices dropped from 16% in December to 7% this month.

The Week’s News

Fully 45% say they very closely followed news about the massive storm system that swept across much of the country last week. This was the top story for 26% and accounted for 8% of the news coverage measured by PEJ. Not surprisingly, interest in the wild winter weather was greatest in the Northeast (56% very closely) and the Midwest (54%), the regions hardest hit. Those in western states expressed the least interest (28% very closely)

While the protests in Egypt and winter storms were the stories the public says they followed most closely, many also continued to keep a close watch on economic news. About a third (35%) say they followed economic news very closely. Only about one-in-ten (9%) say they followed news about the economy more closely than any other maj0r story last week. News about the economy accounted for 5% of the newshole.

A quarter (25%) say they followed news about a federal judge’s ruling that part of the nation’s new health care law is unconstitutional; 9% say this is the news they followed most closely. Republicans (33%) are more likely to say they followed this news very closely than Democrats (23%) or independents (21%). The continuing debate over the health care law enacted last year accounted for 7% of coverage last week. More than half of that – 4% of the total — focused on the court ruling.

About a quarter (24%) say they followed news about the Super Bowl very closely. This was the top news for 9%. In 2010, 27% said they followed news about the National Football League championship game very closely. This year, about three-in-ten men (29%) say they followed news about the Super Bowl very closely; 18% of women say the same.

And as Republican candidates start talking about possible challenges to Barack Obama next year, 15% say they followed news about the 2012 presidential elections very closely; 3% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about the next campaign made up less than 1% of coverage.

Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say they followed this news very closely (21% of Republicans, 16% of Democrats). Just more than one-in-ten independents (12%) says this.

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 January 31 – February 6, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected February 3-6, from a nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults.

About the Survey

The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted February 3-6, 2011 among a national sample of 1,001 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States (670 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 331were interviewed on a cell phone, including 131 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see: http://www.people-press.org/methodology/detailed.

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 2010 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2010 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 sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

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.