April 29, 2009

Public Sees Too Much Personal Coverage of Obama

Majorities Say Right Amount on Leadership and Policies

Summary of Findings

Most Americans say that the news media has devoted too much coverage to Barack Obama’s family and personal life during his first months as president, but the right amount of coverage to his leadership style and his policy proposals.

The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted April 24-27 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that just over half (53%) of the public says there has been too much coverage of Obama’s family and personal life, while 40% say the amount of coverage has been about right. Just 4% say there has been too little on this topic.

By contrast, the public believes news organizations are devoting the right amount of coverage to Obama’s leadership style and the way he is managing his job (60% right amount) and the policies he has proposed (58%). In terms of policy proposals, however, more than twice as many say there has been too little coverage than too much coverage (27% vs. 12%).

A separate news content analysis released April 28 by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive coverage than either of his predecessors during his first months in the White House. And it finds that the coverage has focused significantly more on his personal and leadership qualities than the early coverage of either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. [See “Obama’s First 100 Days” released Tuesday, April 28, 2009.]

The public generally does not believe the early coverage of Obama has been excessively favorable. A majority (55%) says the press coverage that Obama has gotten at the start of his term has been fair. About a quarter (26%) say coverage has not been critical enough, while 15% say it has been too critical. Those numbers have not changed much since late March, when 52% said press coverage was fair, 24% said it was not critical enough and 18% said it was too critical.

Not surprisingly, there continue to be significant party differences in perceptions of the general tone of Obama coverage. Fully two-thirds of Democrats say the coverage has been fair, as do 56% of independents. By contrast, just 37% of Republicans believes the coverage of Obama has been fair, while most (51%) say the coverage has not been critical enough.

The partisan differences are smaller in views of the emphasis of press coverage, rather than its tone. Most Republicans (56%) and independents (55%), as well as half of Democrats, say that Obama’s family and personal life has received too much coverage. There is less agreement about the amount of coverage of Obama’s leadership style and policy proposals, however. While 73% of Democrats say coverage of his policy proposals has been the right amount, smaller shares of independents (52%) and Republicans (46%) agree. Sizable minorities of Republicans (32%) and independents (31%), but just 19% of Democrats, believe that Obama’s policy proposals have been undercovered.

Meanwhile, Obama continues to be far and away the most visible newsmaker. When asked to name one or two people they had heard the most about in the news lately, an overwhelming majority (81%) names Obama. Since he took office, Obama has repeatedly been the top newsmaker each week as measured by PEJ – based on the number of stories counted in which he plays a prominent role.

Swine Flu Outbreak Getting Attention

As an outbreak of swine flu spreads beyond Mexico into the United States and elsewhere, Americans have started to track the fast developing story closely. The story grew in prominence after the survey went into the field, but 25% of the public say they followed reports about the deadly flu very closely and 21% say this was the story – among six choices – that they followed most closely last week. At this point, the amount of interest is similar to several recent health scares, including the spread of a drug-resistant staph infection in the U.S. in late 2007.

The public also continues to closely track the financial problems facing the U.S. auto industry, particularly Chrysler and General Motors. Three-in-ten say they followed these stories very closely. For almost two-in-ten (18%), this was the story they followed more closely than any other.

Slightly more than one-in-ten (11%) say they were following developments in the debate over whether to set up a bi-partisan commission to investigate the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks more closely than any other story. Two-in-ten (21%) say they followed this story very closely.

The same share (21%) say they were following events in Iraq very closely last week, while 10% say this was the news they followed most closely.

Raging wildfires in South Carolina attracted less attention: 12% say they followed that story very closely, while 7% say it was the story they followed more closely than any other.

About one-in-seven (15%) say they were following news about worsening instability in Pakistan very closely. That was the story followed most closely by 4%.

Many Know About Arrest of Craigslist Murder Suspect

More than four-in-ten Americans (42%) say they heard a lot about the arrest in Massachusetts last week of a man suspected of robbing and killing a woman he met through the Craigslist web site. That is the same percentage that say they heard a lot about President Obama’s friendly greeting for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a recent regional summit. More than a third had heard at least a little about the arrest (35%) and the Chavez encounter (34%). Republicans were more likely than Democrats to have heard a lot about Obama’s handshake with Chavez (51% vs. 39%).

About a third (32%) say they had heard a lot about the controversy involving a Miss USA contestant and her response to a beauty contest question about same-sex marriage. Close to four-in-ten (37%) had heard a little about this story. Here too, Republicans reported hearing more about the story than Democrats (40% of Republicans heard a lot about this compared with 27% of Democrats).

Among the public overall, fewer than three-in-ten (27%) say they heard a lot about the apparent suicide of an executive from Freddie Mac Mortgage Company. Freddie Mac’s financial problems lead to a government takeover last fall.

Overall, 19% heard a lot about the federal government’s decision to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B contraceptive to women as young as 17. Somewhat more women (22%) than men (16%) say they heard a lot about this story. Only 13% of the public say they heard a lot about American journalists being prosecuted in North Korea and Iran. About four-in-ten (41%) say they heard nothing at all about this news.

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, survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected April 23-26 (N=1,001) and April 24-27 (N=1,002) from nationally representative samples of 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 Monday through Sunday) 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.