February 22, 2012

Public’s Top Stories: Whitney Houston, Election, Economy

Santorum's Visibility Grows

Overview

The death of singer Whitney Houston, the presidential campaign and the state of the economy topped the public’s news interest last week.

About two-in-ten (19%) say Houston’s sudden death at 48 was their top story of the week; 18% say they followed news about candidates for the presidential election most closely, while 15% say their top story was news about the economy, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted Feb. 16-20 among 1,006 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Those same stories led coverage. News about the campaign made up 16% of the newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). News about the economy accounted for 12%; an additional 4% of coverage focused on a related story – the payroll tax extension approved by Congress. News about Houston’s death made up 10% of the newshole.

None of the top stories drew especially strong interest last week. A third (33%) say they followed news about the economy very closely, down from 42% one week earlier. A quarter (25%) say they followed news about the candidates very closely, down from 35% the prior week. About two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about Houston’s death in Beverly Hills very closely.

Houston’s death drew strong interest from African Americans. Four-in-ten blacks (40%) say they paid very close attention to news about Houston’s death, compared with just 13% of whites. And far more women (25%) than men (10%) say they followed news about Houston’s death very closely.

Santorum Closing Visibility Gap

Though a plurality continues to say that Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate they have heard most about in the news recently, Romney and Rick Santorum are about equally visible among Republican and Republican-leaning independents.

Looking at the public as a whole, 41% say they have heard the most about Romney recently and 27% say they have heard the most about Santorum. One week ago, despite Santorum wins in recent caucuses and primaries, the divide was wider: 50% said Romney was the most visible candidate; 19% said Santorum was.

Among Republicans and GOP leaners, about as many (41%) now say they are hearing most about Romney as say they are hearing most about Santorum (35%). One week ago, 52% said that candidate was Romney, while about half as many said Santorum (24%).

With his recent surge, Santorum also has drawn close to Romney in coverage. According to PEJ, Romney was a significant figure in 55% of campaign stories last week, while Santorum was a significant figure in 50%. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were major players in far fewer stories (14% and 3%, respectively). One week earlier, Romney was a significant figure in 57% of stories, Santorum in 46%, Gingrich in 28% and Paul in 4%.

The Week’s News

The 18% who say they followed news about Houston’s death very closely is less than the 30% that followed news about the death of Michael Jackson very closely in the days immediately after his death in June 2009.

In a week without major developments on the campaign trail, a quarter (25%) say they followed news about candidates for the 2012 presidential elections very closely; 18% say election news was their top story. Though partisans are about equally likely to say they followed this news very closely, Republicans are more likely to say this was the news they followed most closely: 27% of Republicans say this, compared with 18% of Democrats and 14% of independents. For Republicans, the campaign was the week’s top story.

About a quarter of the public (24%) say they very closely followed news about Congress passing legislation to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits that otherwise would have expired. This was the top story for 6%. News about the legislation accounted for 4% of coverage. Partisans are about equally likely to say they followed last week’s congressional action very closely.

Public attention was greater last summer when lawmakers agreed to raise the federal debt limit. At the start of August, nearly half (46%) said they had closely followed that news.

About two-in-ten (21%) say they very closely followed news about international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program; 8% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about Iran accounted for 5% of coverage.

About one-in-ten (11%) say they followed news about efforts to deal with the debt crisis in Europe very closely. That was before this week’s major agreement to deal with Greece’s financial troubles. Efforts to deal with the debt crisis was the top story for 4%, and 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 Feb. 13-19, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected Feb. 16-20, 2012 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.