May 9, 2012

Public Attention Focused on U.S. Economy

Few Following News from China, Europe, Afghanistan

Overview

Americans followed news about the nation’s economy more closely than any other news last week amid new signs the pace of the recovery has slowed.

A quarter of the public (25%) says their top story was reports about the condition of the U.S. economy, while 18% say they followed news about the 2012 presidential election most closely, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted May 3-6 among 999 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

In a week when no single story dominated coverage, the presidential campaign accounted for 15% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). The drama unfolding in China over the fate of dissident Chen Guangcheng ranked second, accounting for 12%. News about the economy made up 9%. Despite heavy coverage of the China story, which has involved tense negotiations between the U.S. and China, public interest has been modest; 15% say they followed this story very closely, while 6% say this was the news they followed most closely.

And while the U.S. economy is the public’s top story, relatively few are following reports about economic problems in several European countries.  Just 16% report tracking economic news from Europe very closely, and only 3% say news from Europe was what they followed most closely.

The Tone of Economic News

Most Americans continue to say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy (60%), but the number that says they have been hearing mostly negative news about the economy is up eight points since early March when it matched an earlier low.

At that point, 24% said they were hearing mostly bad news about the economy. That rose to 30% in early April and now stands at 32%. The relatively small number hearing mostly good news has dropped from 11% in April and March to 6% in the current survey.

On May 4, the federal labor department released a worse-than-expected report on the national jobs situation. The government also reported at the end of April that the pace of economic growth slowed in the first quarter of the year.

Partisans continue to differ sharply in their perceptions of the tone of economic news. Republicans and independents are much more likely than Democrats to say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy. More than four-in-ten Republicans (44%) and 36% of independents say this, compared with 19% of Democrats.
About one-in-ten Democrats (11%) say they are hearing mostly good news about the economy, compared with 3% of Republicans and 5% of independents. In April, nearly twice as many Democrats (20%) said they were hearing mostly good news.

More Democrats now say they are hearing mixed news about the economy (69%) than did so in April (59%). Opinions among Republicans and independents are little changed from one month ago.

The Week’s News

The health of the economy and the 2012 presidential election are both long running stories that routinely attract public interest.

Nearly four-in-ten (38%) say they followed news about the economy very closely last week, a level of interest comparable to most weeks over the past year. Another 16% say they very closely followed news about related economic problems in several European countries; 3% say this was their top story. News about the struggling European economies accounted for 2% of coverage.

About three-in-ten (29%) say they followed election news very closely last week, a level of interest that has held relatively steady for much of 2012.

Though Republicans and Democrats are about as likely to say they are following news about the economy very closely (48% and 42%, respectively), Republicans are more likely to say they followed news about the economy most closely. Nearly four-in-ten Republicans (37%) say news about the economy was their top story last week. News about the presidential candidates ranked second at 21%.

Democrats are more evenly divided. About two-in-ten say their top story was the presidential election (22%) or the economy (21%). Another 14% say their top story was President Obama’s trip to Afghanistan; fewer Republicans (4%) or independents (8%) say this was the news they followed most closely.

Overall, 9% say the president’s trip to Afghanistan was their top story; 19% say they followed this news very closely. Coverage of Afghanistan last week, focused primarily on Obama’s visit and U.S. policy there, accounted for 6% of coverage.

About one-in-ten (11%) say they followed news about the death of former NFL linebacker Junior Seau most closely; 16% say they followed this news very closely. Men are more likely than women to say this was their top story (14% vs. 8%).

Just 6% say their top story was the controversy over how U.S. and Chinese officials dealt with the crisis over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese human rights activist who had sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Fewer than two-in-ten (15%) followed this news very closely. More than a third (36%) say they did not follow this story at all closely, though it accounted for almost as much coverage as the presidential campaign.

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 April 30-May 6, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 3-6, 2012, from a nationally representative sample of 999 adults.