May 22, 2012

Presidential Campaign Tops Public’s News Interest

Republicans More Likely to Fault Coverage of Obama than of Romney

Overview

Americans focused most closely last week on news about the presidential election, as the race increasingly shifted from the Republican primary contest to the head-to-head fight between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Nearly three-in-ten (28%) say the campaign was their top story, while 16% say they most closely followed news about the economy, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted May 17-20 among 1,004 adult by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Election news topped coverage as well, accounting for 17% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). General news about the U.S. economy made up 7% of coverage, while related news specifically about the multi-billion dollar losses at banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase accounted for another 7%. In terms of news interest, 7% say they followed news about the troubles at J.P. Morgan most closely last week.

Assessing Coverage of the Candidates

On balance, the public views news coverage of both Obama and Romney as fair. However, more think that coverage of Obama has been too easy than say that about coverage of Romney.

About four-in-ten (41%) say recent news coverage of Obama has been fair, 28% say it has been too easy and 19% see it as too tough. Nearly half (47%) say recent coverage of Romney has been fair, while 21% say it has been too easy and 15% say too tough. These opinions are little changed from earlier in the campaign.

Republicans are far more critical of coverage of Obama than they are of coverage of Romney. Nearly half of Republican and Republican-leaning independents (47%) say the press has been too easy on Obama, while 33% say it has been fair. In contrast, 46% think coverage of Romney has been fair; 27% say coverage of the likely GOP nominee has been too tough, while 13% say it has been too easy.

Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, 49% say coverage of Obama has been fair; virtually the same percentage (48%) says coverage of Romney has been fair. More Democrats say press coverage of Obama is too tough than too easy (30% vs. 12%). By contrast, more say coverage of Romney has been too easy than too tough (26% vs. 7%).

The Week’s News

While the presidential election clearly topped the news index last week as the story Americans followed most closely, the percentages following election news very closely have changed little for much of 2012. The 31% that say they followed news about the candidates very closely is about the same as the 34% that said this one week earlier. Republicans (33%), Democrats (32%) and independents (30%) are about equally likely to say they followed news about the candidates very closely last week.

About a third (35%) say they very closely followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy, while 21% say they very closely followed news about J.P. Morgan losing $2 billion or more in high risk trading. Another 15% say they very closely followed news about political and economic uncertainty in Greece. Comparable numbers say the J.P Morgan losses (7%) and the situation in Greece (6%) was their top story. According to PEJ, coverage of the U.S. economy and J.P. Morgan’s woes together accounted for 14% of the newshole, while the economic troubles in Europe accounted for another 5%.

About one-in-ten (8%) say their top story of the week was Facebook’s initial public stock offering; 14% say they followed this news very closely. With the start of trading last Friday, news about the stock offering accounted for 5% of coverage.

Though young people are about as likely as older ones to say they followed this news very closely, more say this was their top story of the week. For example, 13% of those 18-29 say this was the news they followed most closely, compared with 5% among those 50-64 and just 2% among those 65 and older.

Overall, 15% say they very closely followed news about census data that show the number of minority births in the U.S. topped the number of white births last year; 4% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about this demographic shift 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 May 14-20, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 17-20, 2012, from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.