August 14, 2008

China Olympics Attract Considerable Public Attention

Scant Attention to War in Georgia

Summary of Findings

The China Olympics are catching on with the American public and attracting a sizeable news audience. A majority of Americans say they are watching at least some of the Olympic coverage. Public interest in the Beijing games is comparable to that of the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney; yet substantially lower than when the games were held in Atlanta in 1996. Moreover, Americans’ early skepticism about whether it was a good idea to hold the games in China has waned.

The number saying it was a “bad decision” to hold the Olympics in China has fallen to 31%, down from 43% in Pew’s Global Attitudes Survey conducted in April, which showed Americans to be among the most negative about the games taking place in Beijing among the 23 nations surveyed at that time. Meanwhile, the share saying it was a “good decision” has risen 11 points to a slim 52% majority.

One-in-four Americans (24%) report following news about the Beijing games very closely, comparable to the 27% who very closely followed the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Predictably, public attention to these games is considerably less than the 45% of Americans who followed the 1996 Atlanta summer games very closely. (No comparable measure from 2004 is available.)

Americans who are following the Olympics are particularly likely to that think the decision to have them in China was a good one. Fully 66% of Americans who are following Olympics news very closely say it was a good decision to hold the games in China, compared with just 47% among those who are not following closely.

No Gender Gap in Interest about the Olympics

The poll, conducted last weekend during the opening ceremonies and first several days of competition, asked Americans how much of the games they planned to watch or were currently watching. More than six-in-ten said that they were watching a lot (22%) or some (36%) of the events, while another quarter reported watching very little and 17% said they were watching none of the XXIX Olympiad. Roughly equal numbers of older and younger Americans, men and women reported watching the games.

Russia-Georgia Conflict Garners Limited Attention

In the midst of the Olympics, campaign news and continuing economic concerns, the conflict between Russian and Georgian military forces received relatively limited attention from Americans. Just 17% reported following news about Russian troops entering Georgia very closely, while 37% said they didn’t follow it closely at all.

The level of attention given to the Georgia conflict is comparable to previous international conflicts when they don’t involve U.S. troops. The spike in military tensions between India and Pakistan in 2002 was followed very closely by 24% of Americans, and the conflict between the Russian military and rebels in Chechnya was tracked very closely by only about one-in-ten Americans. Even the 1993 civil war in Bosnia, which ultimately had far-reaching consequences for European politics, was followed very closely by just 23% of Americans.

Upbeat about American Prospects at the Olympics

In interviewing through Monday night, most Americans remained optimistic that by the end of the Games, the U.S. will have won more gold medals than any other country. Nearly two-thirds (63%) think the U.S. will prevail in the gold medal count, while 17% think China will win more gold, and 7% say another country. The Pew Global Attitudes Project’s April survey in China found that the Chinese people were at least as optimistic about their prospects. Fully 75% of Chinese believed that China would win the most gold medals in the games.

Most Americans (68%) say that George W. Bush’s decision to visit China during the games was the right thing to do. Just 22% thought that Bush’s visit to China was a mistake. Strong majorities of Republicans (81%), Democrats (61%) and Independents (65%) agree that Bush did the right thing by going to China for the Olympic Games.

News Interest and Press Coverage

Public interest in news about the Olympics rivaled that of the presidential campaign last week. Roughly one-in-four Americans followed each of these two stories very closely and approximately one-in-five said that either the campaign (21%) or the Olympics (20%) was the story they followed most closely last week. In terms of news coverage, campaign reporting exceeded Olympic coverage by more than double (24% vs. 11%), but there were significant differences between media sectors. The campaign was the biggest story in three-out-of-five sectors (cable TV, network television and on radio), while the Olympics was the number one story in newspaper and online coverage.

The Economy and Other News

Public interest in news about the economy remains high relative to other top stories of the week. Last week, 39% of Americans followed news about the U.S. economy very closely and 26% said it was the story they followed more closely than any other, making it the public’s top news item.

Neither the suicide of a scientist linked to the 2001 anthrax killings nor the Guantanamo military trial of Osama bin Laden’s former driver attracted considerable public attention. One-in-ten Americans followed developments in the anthrax investigations very closely and just 4% called it their most closely followed story. Only 5% of the public followed the Guantanamo trial very closely and even fewer (2%) said it was their most closely followed story.

As in previous surveys more Americans said that Barack Obama was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news recently than identified John McCain (69% vs. 15%, respectively).

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 agenda. 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 from August 4-10 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 8-11 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.

About the News Interest Index

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the
error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.