May 28, 2009

Public Tracks Economy, Media Focuses on Terror Debate

Majorities Say Right Amount on Leadership and Policies

Summary of Findings

Americans continued to closely track news about the struggling economy and the spread of the swine flu last week, though the media devoted the largest share of coverage to the sharp debate in Washington over how best to protect the nation from terrorism.

About a quarter of the public (24%) says they followed reports about the condition of the economy more closely than other top stories last week, while 21% followed news about the swine flu most closely. According to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted May 21-24 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, about one-in-ten (11%) say they followed the debate about how to defend the nation from terror most closely.

A separate content analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that the media devoted 19% of the newshole to terrorism stories last week, making it the most covered story of the week. Much of that was tied to the dueling speeches on May 21 by President Obama and former Vice President Cheney that highlighted different approaches to thwarting terror and dealing with suspected terrorists in U.S. custody.

More than four-in-ten Americans (44%) say they followed reports about the U.S. economy very closely last week, which is little changed from recent weeks. News organizations, meanwhile, devoted 12% of the newshole to the economic crisis, as measured by PEJ. That figure does not include 5% of coverage devoted to new credit card regulations enacted into law last week in Washington. Interest in that story was measured separately in this survey.

Sustained Interest in Economic News

Public attention to economic news peaked as the financial crisis deepened last fall. In the last week of September, 70% said they were following economic news very closely – the highest ever in a Pew Research survey. Since then, interest has fluctuated depending on events; this year, interest peaked at 57% in late January.

There also are no signs that the public is hearing too much about government efforts to help the economy. Just 19% say they are hearing too much about what the government is doing to help the economy; 49% say they are hearing the right amount, while 31% say they are hearing too little about this.

Meanwhile, three-in-ten say they are very closely following reports about the swine flu in the U.S. and elsewhere. That is down from the first week of May, when 43% said they were following the story very closely and experts were voicing greater public concern about how quickly the virus would spread and its potential lethality. As April turned to May, swine flu dominated media coverage as well, but last week, the virus that continues to cause trouble in places such as New York City accounted for only 2% of the newshole.

Despite the great media attention to the debate over tactics in the fight against terror, about one quarter (23%) of the public say they followed the debate very closely last week. Another 25% say they did not follow it at all closely.

In other top stories, 26% say they very closely followed reports about Congress enacting new credit card regulations intended to help consumers. For 11%, this was the story they followed most closely. That is the same share that says they followed the terrorism debate at that level. Stories about the credit card overhaul, signed by President Obama on May 22, made up 5% of the newshole examined by PEJ.

A quarter says they followed news about Obama’s proposal requiring better fuel efficiency for American automobiles very closely. Just under one-in-ten (9%) say this was the news they followed most closely. The story accounted for 4% of coverage.

One-in-five say they very closely followed stories about Iran’s testing of a missile that could reach Israel. That was the story followed most closely for 4%. The news made up 1% of the newshole.

Too Much Coverage of Swine Flu?

While many Americans say they continue to follow news about the spread of swine flu very closely, a significant share (45%) says they have been hearing too much about the illness. Still, a comparable percentage (44%) says they are hearing the right amount. Only 11% say they are hearing too little.

About a third (34%) say they have been hearing too much about the debate over America’s policies about torture. Still, close to four-in-ten (38%) say they have been hearing the right amount about this debate and about a quarter (26%) say they have been hearing too little about this.

About four-in-ten (43%) say they have been hearing too little about political instability in Pakistan, a critical factor in the fight against terror. More than a third (37%) says coverage has been about the right amount on this subject, while just 17% say there has been too much coverage.

Meanwhile, more than half (53%) say they have been hearing too much about steroids in baseball in the aftermath of the suspension of Dodger’s slugger Manny Ramirez for using a substance prohibited by major league baseball. Close to three-in-ten (28%) say they have heard about the right amount, while 15% say they have heard too little.

About four-in-ten (39%) say they have been hearing too much about the problems facing the U.S. automobile industry, though the survey was taken before General Motors moved closer to a bankruptcy filing this week. A comparable share (42%) say the coverage has been about right, while 18% say there has been too little.

Majority Says Economic Policies on Right Track

More than half of the public (53%) says the government in on the right track in the way it is handling the economic problems facing the nation, while almost four-in-ten (39%) say it is on the wrong track. That is little changed from last March, when 50% said the government was on the right track and 39% said it was on the wrong track. Still, the share saying the government is on the right track is up significantly since just before Obama took office. In mid-January, close to half (48%) said the government was on the wrong track, while 31% said it was on the right track.

Not surprisingly, the current numbers show a deep partisan divide. More than eight-in-ten (84%) Democrats say the government is on the right track in the way it is handling the economy, while only 10% say it is on the wrong track. Seven-in-ten Republicans (70%) say the government is on the wrong track, while 24% say it is on the right track. Independents are divided with 49% saying the government is on the right track and 41% saying it is on the wrong track.

Boy Who Fled Cancer Treatment Widely Known

More than seven-in-ten Americans (71%) heard a lot or a little (33% and 38% respectively) about the mother and son who fled Minnesota in defiance of a court order requiring the family to give the cancer-stricken 13-year-old chemotherapy. The pair returned to the state this week.

More people had heard about that story than the arrests of four men in New York on charges they plotted to bomb two synagogues and attack military aircraft. Two thirds of the public heard either a lot (29%) or a little (37%) about this news. One third says they had heard nothing at all.

Fewer had heard news about a fossil that researchers believe sheds light on the links between humans and early primates. Close to half (48%) say they heard nothing about this story, while 18% say they heard a lot and 34% say they heard a little.

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 May 18-24, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 21-24 from a nationally representative sample of 1,000 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.