June 1, 2011

Midwest Tornadoes Top Story for Public and Press

Overview

The devastating tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest last week dominated the public’s news interest and received much more coverage than any other story.

About half of the public (48%) says they followed news about the powerful tornadoes that struck Joplin, Mo., more closely than any other news last week. None of the week’s other top stories comes close, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey conducted May 26-29 among 1,000 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

News about the tornadoes made up 22% of all coverage, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). News about the tornadoes made up 46% of network news airtime and 38% of cable news coverage examined last week.

More than four-in-ten Americans (45%) say they very closely followed news about the tornadoes. Half of women (50%) say they followed this news very closely, compared with 38% of men. And though this week’s devastation occurred in the Midwest, interest was comparable across the country: 48% in the South, 45% in the Northeast, 43% in the Midwest and 40% in the West say they followed news about the tornadoes very closely.

A Year of Major Breaking Stories

The public showed only modest interest in the week’s other top stories, continuing a trend seen throughout much of 2011. A series of major breaking news stories – including the shootings in Tucson, the upheaval in the Middle East, the disasters in Japan and the killing of Osama bin Laden – has dominated the news agenda for both the media and the public this year. And that has routinely resulted in less public attention to other news, such as the debate in Washington over how to address the federal deficit and long-term debt and the early stages of the 2012 presidential campaign.

A quarter of the public (25%) says they very closely followed the ongoing discussions in Washington last week over how to handle the federal budget deficit and reduce the national debt; just 8% say this was the news they followed most closely. The only week this year when the deficit debate drew substantial public interest was in early April, when a government shutdown loomed. In the April 7-10 News Interest survey, 47% followed news about the threat of a shutdown very closely and 31% followed this story most closely.

Two-in-ten say they followed news about the 2012 presidential campaign very closely last week, up slightly from a week earlier (15%) and matching the high for the year hit in mid-April. Still, just 5% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about the campaign, focused on the potential Republican candidates, made up 9% of coverage.

About a quarter (26%) say they followed news about state and local budget problems very closely; 7% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about state and local budget problems made up just 1% of the national coverage analyzed by PEJ, though these are often local stories covered more closely by local and regional media.

Nearly two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians very closely; 5% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about the conflict – and the response to efforts by President Obama to restart negotiations over creation of a Palestinian state – made up 5% of coverage.

Meanwhile, about one-in-ten (11%) say they followed news about Obama’s trip to Europe last week very closely. Just 3% say this was the news they followed most closely. The president’s trip made up 3% of coverage.

Most Aware of Oprah’s Final Show

Nearly three-quarters of the public (73%) say they heard at least a little about the end of Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show; 36% say they heard a lot about this while 37% say they heard a little. About a quarter (26%) say they heard nothing at all.

In November 2009, when Winfrey announced her show would end this year, comparable numbers had heard this news. At that time, 33% said they had heard a lot about this and 45% said they had heard a little; 21% said they heard nothing at all.

Women are much more likely than men to say they heard a lot about Winfrey’s final talk show (45% vs. 27%). And African Americans are much more likely than whites to say they heard a lot about Winfrey’s final program (55% vs. 34%).

Two-thirds of the public (66%) say they heard at least a little about a judge finding Jared Loughner not fit to stand trial on allegations that he killed six and severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a January shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz. About a quarter (23%) say they heard a lot about the ruling, while 43% say they heard a little. A third (33%) say they heard nothing at all about this.

More than six-in-ten (63%) say they heard at least a little about the latest allegations against Lance Armstrong, the bicycle racing champion who has been accused of using performance enhancing drugs. About two-in-ten (19%) say they heard a lot about this, while 44% say they heard a little. More than a third (37%) say they heard nothing about 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 May 23-29, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 26-29, from a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults.