February 19, 2009

Most Feel a Personal Stake in Tracking Economic News

Stimulus Passage Tops News Coverage and Interest

Summary of Findings

Americans continue to follow news about the economic crisis closely because they feel it is directly relevant to their lives. More than eight-in-ten (85%) say even when the economic news is bad they feel better knowing what’s going on, while 77% say they need to stay on top of economic news because it matters in the financial decisions they make.

At the same time, close to half (46%) of the public says they often feel they don’t have enough background information to follow economic news stories, according to the Pew Research Center’s weekly News Interest Index survey conducted Feb. 13-16. As the crisis takes a heavy toll on jobs, homes, retirement savings and entire communities, 49% also say the economic news seems to be the same all the time with nothing ever really changing; another 44% say they find themselves looking for lighter news as a diversion from negative economic reports.

But relatively few are turning off economic news because it is too disheartening. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) say they often feel the news is so depressing, they would rather not hear about it.

In fact, from the public’s perspective, the economic news landscape is somewhat less bleak today than it was a few months ago. Conducted immediately after Congress approved the economic stimulus bill, the survey finds fewer people than in December saying they are hearing “mostly bad news about the economy.” That percentage has declined from 80% to 60%, while the percentage saying they are hearing “a mix of good and bad news” jumped from 19% in December to 37%.

The economic crisis in general and President Obama’s push for stimulus legislation dominated what people followed in the news and what the news media covered last week. More than four-in-ten (44%) say congressional passage of the $787 billion stimulus bill was the story they followed most closely last week, while 22% say they followed reports about the U.S. economy most closely. The separate News Coverage Index prepared by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) shows that economic stories filled 47% of the overall newshole last week. Looking more deeply, stories about the stimulus fight filled 28% of the newshole and stories about economic conditions filled 19%.

A Personal Stake

Of the reactions people have to economic news, the sense that it matters to them in their everyday lives is the most tightly linked to their level of attention. Those who say they are following economic news very closely are much more likely than those following less closely to say they need to stay on top of developments because they affect their financial decisions. About nine-in-ten (91%) of those following economic news very closely say they need to know for financial reasons, compared with 60% of those not following the news very closely.

In addition, 91% of those following economic news very closely say they feel better knowing what’s going on, even if the news is bad, compared with 79% of those following less closely. And the level of background information is also related to attention. Among those who say they are not following the coverage very closely, more than half (54%) say they feel they don’t have enough background information to follow economic news; four-in-ten of those following very closely say the same.

Feeling that the news is depressing or repetitive, however, appears to have little connection with levels of attention. Those who are following very closely are about as likely as those who are not to say they find themselves looking for lighter news to get away from the negative economic news. The highly attentive are also about as likely as the less attentive to describe economic news as always the same.

Income is related to people’s reactions to the news, as the wealthiest households are significantly more likely than lower income ones to say they need to know about economic news so they can make financial decisions. More than eight-in-ten (83%) of those with household incomes above $75,000 say they need to know for financial reasons, compared with 64% of households with incomes of less than $30,000.

People in lower income households are more likely than those in wealthier ones to say the news seems to be the same all the time (54% vs. 39%), that they don’t feel they have enough background information to understand the economic news (50% vs. 36%), and that they find themselves looking for lighter news as a diversion (50% vs. 38%). More than a third (36%) of those with household income below $30,000 say they often find the news so depressing, they would rather not hear it, compared with 20% of those from households earning more than $75,000.

Shift in Tone

Despite the continuing flow of bad economic news, more people now say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news than said so in December. In the latest survey, the number saying they are hearing mostly bad news has dropped from 80% to 60%. And the number saying they are hearing a mix of good and bad almost doubled from 19% to 37%.

As the Obama administration starts to implement its economic policies, those numbers show a widening partisan divide. The share of Republicans saying they are hearing mostly bad news is down only slightly from December – from 80% to 73%. But the proportion of Democrats and independents saying the same has dropped significantly. In December, 82% of Democrats said the news was mostly bad, while 56% say the same today. Three-quarters of independents (76%) characterized the economic news as mostly bad in December, compared with 55% today. The percentage of Republicans saying they are hearing mixed economic news increased slightly from 19% in December to 26% today. Among Democrats, that percentage jumped from 17% to 41%. Among independents, it rose from 22% to 40%.

Income also seems to be a factor as significantly more of those in the middle and lower economic brackets now say that coverage of economic news has been a mix of good and bad. Among those with household incomes of more than $75,000, 25% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, up from 17% in December. Among those with household incomes between $30,000 and $75,000, that percentage jumped from 16% in December to 37% today. Among those with household incomes of less than $30,000, the share that says they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news has risen from 27% in December to 50% in the current survey.

Other Top Stories of the Week

While news about the economic crisis and the stimulus package continued to attract the most interest last week, a deadly plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., also drew considerable public attention. About a third (32%) of Americans followed the crash involving Continental Connection flight 3407 very closely. The airline tragedy was the top story for 10% of the public. According to PEJ’s analysis, news coverage of the crash, which occurred late in the week, made up 5% of the newshole. The accident in Buffalo did not attract the same level of public interest as last month’s dramatic emergency landing of a U.S. Airways jet in the Hudson River, where all on the plane survived.

The story of the California mother and her newborn octuplets continued to capture headlines and public interest. One-in-ten said the octuplets was their most closely followed story of the week, equal to the percentage citing the Continental plane crash. About one-in-four (26%) followed this news very closely compared with 23% during the previous week. The media, for its part, devoted 1% of total newshole to this story.

New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez made headlines last week when he admitted to using performance enhancing drugs from 2001 to 2003 when he played for the Texas Rangers. About one-in-ten (11%) followed news about his admission very closely, while 3% cited this as their most closely followed story. News about Rodriguez accounted for 1% of all news last week, making him the fourth biggest newsmaker behind President Obama, Senator Judd Gregg and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. News about Rodriguez using banned substances attracted almost as much interest as coverage of pitcher Roger Clemens testifying before Congress in February, 2008 about alleged steroid use.

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 February 9-15, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected February 13-16, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 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.