December 11, 2008

Public Hearing Positive News About Obama Transition

Economic News Dominates Coverage and Interest

Summary of Findings

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office and announces choices for key cabinet posts, a majority of Americans (56%) says news stories about the incoming administration are mostly positive. Very few (3%) say what they are hearing or reading about the new Obama administration is mostly negative, while four-in-ten (38%) say the coverage is a mix of both positive and negative news.

Two-thirds (67%) of Democrats say news stories about Obama are mostly positive, compared with fewer than half of Republicans (46%) and 55% of independents. Republicans are divided, with 46% saying the stories have been a mix of positive and negative. The survey was completed before the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges that include allegations he sought to use the selection of Obama’s successor in the Senate for his personal advantage.

Many Americans continued to track the transition last week – 36% say they followed transition developments very closely – but with the debate in Congress over a multi-billion dollar plan to help the Detroit automakers stave off bankruptcy, official news that the nation was in recession, and reports that more than 500,000 jobs were lost in November, the public focused even more closely on economic news.

Four-in-ten (42%) followed economic news very closely; another 38% followed developments fairly closely. Reports about unemployment attracted the very close attention of 40%. In addition, 34% paid very close attention to the debate in Congress over government help for domestic automakers.

Americans in households with less than $30,000 in annual income were more likely to have followed unemployment figures very closely than those in households earning $75,000 or more (56% vs. 44%, respectively). Higher income Americans, meanwhile, were more likely to have paid very close attention to the auto industry bailout than lower income Americans (44% vs. 30%).

Not surprisingly, eight-in-ten say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy these days, while 19% say they are hearing a mix of both good and bad news. The perception that news about the economy is mostly bad is shared across the demographic spectrum.

Coverage and Interest in Sync

The public’s news interests and the media coverage was very much in sync last week. When asked to name the news story they followed most closely, three-in-ten (29%) list economic conditions, making it the public’s top story. Economic developments also were the most heavily covered news of the week, accounting for 20% of the newshole, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Close to one-in-five (19%) say they followed transition developments most closely, making it the second most followed story. News about Obama’s plans and appointments filled 18% of the newshole, according to PEJ. Among the transition stories were Obama’s selections of Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, Bill Richardson as his Secretary of Commerce and Robert Gates to remain as Secretary of Defense.

News about the Big Three automakers was the public’s third most closely followed story¬ with 18% citing the debate in Congress over an auto bailout as their most closely followed story. The media devoted 17% of coverage to this story. In news from abroad, 10% cite the coordinated terror attacks in Mumbai, India, as their most closely followed story last week. News about the aftermath of the terrorist siege filled 11% of the newshole last week.

Obama Tops All Newsmakers

Barack Obama continued to be far and away the most visible newsmaker last week. When asked to name one or two people they had heard the most about in the news lately, an overwhelming majority (89%) named Obama. The next most visible person in the public’s mind, Hillary Clinton, was named by 19%; another 12% cited President George W. Bush. According to the PEJ, Obama was the lead newsmaker in 6% of all stories for the week of Dec. 1-7, far exceeding coverage of Bush and O.J. Simpson, the next biggest newsmakers.

Simpson returned to the news last week when he was sentenced in a Nevada court to a minimum of nine years in prison for armed robbery (9% cited Simpson as the most heard about person in the news lately). Other prominent newsmakers included former GOP running mates Sarah Palin (8%) and John McCain (7%).

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 from December 1-7 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected December 5-8 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 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 compiles this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey collects 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.