November 20, 2008

Economic Problems, Especially in Detroit, Absorb Public’s Attention

Summary of Findings

With the presidential election behind them, Americans have turned their attention back to the nation’s economy. The economy was by far the public’s top news story last week.

Fully 56% of the public followed news about the economy very closely last week, and as many as 43% listed this as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. In particular, Americans are beginning to focus more closely on the problems facing the U.S. auto industry.

Despite the public’s changing focus, the national news media split its coverage between economic and political news last week. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the media devoted as much attention to Barack Obama’s plans for his administration as it did to the economic crisis.

Three-in-ten Americans paid very close attention to news about problems facing the U.S. auto industry last week. Interest in news about the fate of the Big Three automakers has increased significantly in recent weeks. Two weeks earlier, only 16% were paying very close attention to news about the possible merger of General Motors and Chrysler. The last time the public was tracking news about the auto industry this closely was in January 1992, when GM announced major job cuts and restructuring.

When asked to name the one economic or financial problem they have been hearing the most about in the news these days, the auto industry is the second most prominent issue, after the housing and mortgage crisis. About one-in-five (21%) named housing as the one economic problem they’ve been hearing the most about, while 17% named the auto industry. Other economic issues the public is hearing a lot about include the government bailout plan (13%), the credit crisis (11%), the stock market (9%) and unemployment (7%).

Weakening Support for Government Bailout Plan

The public is now evenly divided over whether the government is doing the right thing or the wrong thing by investing billions of dollars to keep financial institutions and markets secure. Four-in-ten say the government is doing the right thing, while 43% say the government is doing the wrong thing. In mid-September, when the bailout plan was initially announced, support was broad and bipartisan: 57% said it was the right thing to do, 30% said it was the wrong thing. By mid-October, after the details of the planned had been ironed out, support had fallen somewhat. However, the balance of opinion still favored the government’s bailout plan (47% right thing vs. 37% wrong thing).

Democrats continue to favor the bailout plan, while support among Republicans and independents has slipped since October. Just a third of Republicans now say the government plan is the right thing to do, while a majority (53%) says it is the wrong thing to do. Among Democrats, 52% now say the government plan is the right thing to do, down only marginally from 54% in October. On balance, independents now oppose the plan (46% say it’s the wrong thing to do, 37% say right thing).

While the public is now less sold on the current government bailout plan, there is considerable public interest in how the government plans to address the economy going forward. When asked what aspect of economic news they are most interested, a plurality of Americans (46%) say they are interested in hearing about government plans and proposals for dealing with the economy. Another 37% say they are interested in hearing about how ordinary citizens are being affected by the economic crisis. Only 14% say they are most interested in hearing about how major businesses and banking institutions are being affected.

Lower income Americans are mainly interested in hearing about how ordinary people are being affected by the economic downturn, while middle and upper income Americans are more interested in hearing about the government’s plans for dealing with the economy. Among those with annual household incomes under $30,000, fully half say they are most interested in hearing about the economy’s impact on ordinary people. Among those with incomes between $30,000 and $75,000, roughly half (48%) say they’re most interested in hearing about government plans and policies. The same is true for 52% of those with annual incomes in excess of $75,000.

Half Say They are Angered by Economic News

News reports about the state of the economy elicit a variety of emotions from the public. Nearly half of Americans (49%) say they feel angry when seeing or hearing reports about the economy, while 43% say they feel scared. Nearly four-in-ten (37%) say they feel confused by economic news and about as many report feeling depressed (35%). Just 30% say they feel optimistic when they see or hear news reports about the economy, while 69% say they do not feel optimistic.

People ages 65 and older are more likely than younger Americans to feel angry with news about economic conditions. A solid majority of this age group (57%) says they feel angry when they see or hear reports about the economy. That compares with roughly half of those ages 30 to 64 (51%) and four-in-ten people under age 30.

Lower income Americans (those with annual household incomes under $30,000) are more likely to report feeling scared about the economy, but also more likely to describe themselves as optimistic than are those in upper income households (those earning $75,000 or more annually). Upper income Americans are less likely to feel many of these emotions but feelings of anger are shared equally across income groups.

Those who report following economic news very closely are more likely to report feeling angry, depressed, scared or optimistic by what they are seeing or hearing in the news than people who are following the economy less closely. Confusion is the one emotion shared by those following economic news very closely and those who are less interested.

Internet Main Source for Investment Advice

Amid all the economic turmoil on Wall Street and Main Street, many Americans are seeking out news and information to help them decide how and where to invest their money. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) say they get this type of information from news sources at least once a week (with 10% saying they get investment advice every day). Among those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or higher, a third get investment advice from news sources at least once a week (17% daily). Lower and middle income Americans are much less likely to get daily updates.

The proportion of Americans seeking investment advice from news sources is significantly greater than it was eight years ago. In May 2000, 18% said they got investment information from news sources at least one a week, compared with 29% currently.

The internet has become the leading source for news and information about investing. Fully 31% of those who seek investment advice from news outlets say their main source is the internet. A quarter of those who get investment information cite television as their main source, while 15% name newspapers.

Investment news consumers are much more likely to turn to the internet now than they were in 2000 (18% listed the internet as their top source in May 2000). At the same time newspapers have become a less important source of information: 15% say newspapers are now their most important source for investment information
compared with 23% in 2000. The percentage relying primarily on television news for investment advice is largely unchanged from May, 2000.

Those with annual incomes of $75,000 or higher are among the most likely to rely on the internet for investment advice and information: 35% say the internet is their main source for this type of information. Lower income Americans who seek investment advice from news sources rely more heavily on television. Nearly four-in-ten (37%) of those with annual incomes of less than $30,000 a year say TV is their main source for investment news; 23% of those in this income category say they turn to the internet first.

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 November 10-16 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected November 14-17 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.

News of the Week

In other news last week, a third of Americans (32%) paid very close attention to news about plans for the new Obama administration, and another 37% followed this story fairly closely. One-in-five (19%) listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. Democrats were much more interested than Republicans in news about the Obama transition (48% of Democrats vs. 19% of Republicans followed very closely).

In other political news, 16% of the public followed stories about Sarah Palin very closely. The Alaska governor granted a host of television interviews last week, and by week’s end she had become the focus of 4% of the overall national newshole. Republicans followed news about Palin much more closely than did Democrats (27% vs. 14% followed very closely).

One-in-five Americans (21%) followed the wildfires in Southern California very closely last week and another 28% paid fairly close attention. Coverage of the fires accounted for 3% of the national newshole, according the Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Public interest in last week’s fires was nowhere near as high as last year’s devastating fires in that region. In late October, 2007 40% of the public was following the California wildfires very closely.

One-in-four Americans (24%) paid very close attention to the Iraq war last week; the media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to the war.

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.

Cite this publication: “Economic Problems, Especially in Detroit, Absorb Public’s Attention.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 20, 2008) http://www.people-press.org/2008/11/20/economic-problems-especially-in-detroit-absorb-publics-attention/, accessed on July 23, 2014.