May 20, 2009

Public Stays Focused on the Economy

Widespread Awareness of Dealership Closings

Summary of Findings

Americans followed reports about the U.S. economy more closely than other major stories last week as President Obama pushed for new restrictions on the credit card industry and automakers announced plans to cut ties with some 1,900 dealerships nationwide.

More than four-in-ten (44%) say they followed economic news very closely, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted May 15-18 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. For close to three-in-ten (28%), this was the story they followed more closely than any other.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the public (67%) say they heard a lot about the plans announced by General Motors and Chrysler to each close hundreds of dealerships in their bids to become more efficient and profitable. The closings will hit communities across the country, many already hurting because of the lengthy recession.

Car Dealership Closings Widely Heard About

The large majority that had heard a lot about the dealership closings exceeds or rivals the shares that had heard a lot about several of the top news events of the economic crisis – including the first loans to the troubled AIG insurance company by the Federal Reserve Bank (64%) last September and the bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers (59%), also last September. In March, when GM reported losses of $30 billion for 2008, 44% said they had heard a lot about the story.

Perhaps because of its local impact, the news about the dealership closings is widely known across demographic groups, including gender, age and education. There is little difference among partisans as well, with 72% of Republicans saying they had heard a lot about the closings and 66% of Democrats saying the same.

Many more say they had heard about the dealerships’ troubles last week than had heard a lot about the controversy over when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was told about waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques used by the U.S. government since the Sept. 11 attacks (38% heard a lot).

About a third each had heard a lot about Iran releasing a U.S. journalist who had been convicted of spying (34%) and the mission by U.S. astronauts to repair the Hubble Space Telescope (34%). And a similar sized share (32%) says they heard a lot about former Vice President Dick Cheney’s criticisms of Barack Obama’s terrorism policies.

Republicans were significantly more likely to say they heard a lot about Pelosi’s problems than Cheney’s comments (47% vs. 32%), while the balance was switched among Democrats. Close to four-in-ten (39%) heard a lot about Cheney’s words, while 31% had heard a lot about the Pelosi developments.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, stories about terrorism and how to deal with it proved to be the top storyline last week, accounting for 22% of the newshole. In that total, PEJ included reporting on both the Pelosi and Cheney stories, as well as Obama’s decision to oppose the release of photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, a high profile change in course for the president.

The Week’s Top Stories

One quarter of the public (25%) says they followed Obama’s decision about the photographs very closely, while that was the story followed most closely by 7%. An equal share (25%) say they very closely tracked debate about an overhaul of the nation’s health care system, as Obama met with industry leaders in Washington.

For 13%, this was the story they followed most closely last week, making it the second most closely followed. According to PEJ, the health care debate took up 6% of the newshole.

Slightly smaller shares closely followed stories about the U.S. soldier in Iraq who killed five fellow soldiers. About two-in-ten (21%) say they followed this story very closely, while 10% say this was the story they followed most closely.

Details of the investigation into the February plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., were followed very closely by 17%. Fewer than one-in-ten (7%) say this was the story they followed more closely than the others.

Though President Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame’s graduation – and the school’s granting him an honorary degree – generated great controversy among opponents of abortion, just 16% of Americans say they followed the story very closely; 6% say this was the story they followed most closely.

American Idol Interest Holds

As the eighth season of American Idol draws to a close, nearly one-in-five (18%) Americans say they are following the Fox singing competition very closely or fairly closely. That is comparable to the 19% that said the same in 2008 or the 22% in 2007.

Idol continues to attract more women than men with 22% of women following the show very or fairly closely, compared with 13% of men. And younger women – between ages 18 and 49 – are most likely to say they follow the show very or fairly closely (26%).

There are only slight differences among age groups. Those 65 and up are least likely to follow the show fairly or very closely (13%), compared with 20% of those 40 to 64 and 18% of those 18 to 39.

Meanwhile, there is no real difference in interest among adults who are parents (19% very/fairly closely) and those who are not (17%). That is a change from two years ago, when 30% of parents said they were following very or fairly closely, compared with 18% of non-parents.

These fi-ndings 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 May 11-17, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 15-18 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 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.