June 24, 2009

Strong Public Interest in Iranian Election Protests

Many Know Iranians Using Internet to Get Message Out

Summary of Findings

The dramatic events in Iran last week captured the attention of both the public and the media as Americans tracked news about post-election protests in Tehran nearly as closely as they followed news about the troubled U.S. economy.

Two-in-ten say they followed news about the street protests over disputed election results – and the government bid to contain them – more closely than any other major story last week. That’s about the same as the 22% that say they most closely followed news about the economy, the week’s other top story.

About three-in-ten (28%) say they followed developments in Iran very closely, a relatively high level of interest for a foreign story that does not directly involve Americans. Still, that is lower than the 42% that say they followed reports about the struggling economy very closely.

According to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted June 19-22 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, seven-in-ten Americans say they had heard at least a little about the ban imposed by the Iranian government on foreign journalists seeking to cover the protests. Six-in-ten had heard at least a little about Iranians posting amateur video and first hand accounts of protests to the internet to help overcome constraints on journalists in Tehran.

News about Iran dominated media coverage as well, taking up 28% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That made the protests, along with reports about the government crackdown and the use of electronic social media by protesters, the most widely covered international story – other than Iraq – in more than two years, according to PEJ.

Many Know Circumstances of Iran Protests

Many Americans have heard either a lot (35%) or a little (35%) about the restrictions placed on foreign journalists seeking to cover the Iranian election protests. Most also have heard about the use of the internet and social media web-sites, such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, to send amateur video and first hand accounts of theprotests tointernational media and a global audience (32% a lot, 28% a little).

Still, three-in-ten (30%) had heard nothing at all about the ban on foreign journalists covering the protests and almost four-in-ten (39%) had heard nothing about the use of the internet to post protest pictures and accounts.

An unrelated story that was widely known last week was the mid-flight death of a Continental Airlines pilot and the safe landing of his trans-Atlantic flight. More than a third (36%) say they heard a lot about this, while 38% has heard a little. About a quarter (26%) say they had heard nothing at all.

Fewer had heard about an FDA warning to stop using a popular cold remedy, Zicam, which the agency says may hurt a user’s sense of smell. About two-in-ten (21%) heard a lot about this story, while 35% heard a little. More than four-in-ten (44%) had heard nothing at all.

A similar share (20%) say they heard a lot about President Obama’s move to extend certain benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. Four-in-ten (41%) had heard a little about this story, while 37% had heard nothing at all.

Just 7% say they heard a lot about a move by Rhode Island’s legislature to legalize the sale of medical marijuana. A quarter say they had heard a little about this, but two thirds (67%) say they had heard nothing at all.

Interest in Iranian Protests Higher than Interest in Most Foreign Stories

More than half of the public says they followed the protests over the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad either very closely (28%) or fairly closely (28%). The share following the situation very closely ranks near the top of recent foreign news stories, excluding those in which the United States or U.S. citizens have played substantial roles – such as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The stories that attracted the most attention generally involve acts of violence or war, such as the conflict between Russian and Georgian forces in mid-2008 (35% very closely), fighting between Israel and Hamas earlier this year (34%) or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan in late 2007 (32%).

The share that followed the Iranian protests very closely is about the same as the share that followed reports about the terror attacks in Mumbai, India, in December. And interest in the protests is greater than the share that followed news about the Iranian election earlier this month very closely (18%).

Several Major Stories Attract Public Interest

Americans continue to closely track the economy, with 42% saying they followed news about the economic situation very closely. That level of interest has changed little since early May. Economic stories accounted for 11% of news coverage analyzed by PEJ, not including coverage of President Obama’s financial regulatory overhaul proposal.

Americans also continue to closely track the debate in Washington over health care reform. Close to three-in-ten (28%) say they followed stories about the health care debate very closely, about the same level that followed these stories very closely the previous week (29%). This past week, 17% say these were the stories they followed most closely. Stories about proposed changes to the health care system made up 7% of the newshole examined by PEJ.

A similar share (27%) say they very closely followed stories about new military threats from North Korea; 12% say they followed reports about those threats more closely than any other major stories. Those stories accounted for 4% of the newshole.

Another 27% say they very closely followed stories about an Obama administration proposal to expand regulation of financial institutions, part of the government’s response to last year’s financial meltdown. Just 7% say that was the story they followed most closely, while the proposal accounted for 6% of media coverage.

And 15% say they followed reports about developments in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. This story was followed most closely by 3% and accounted for 2% of media coverage analyzed by PEJ.

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 June 15-21, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected June 19-22, 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 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.