February 17, 2010

Haiti, Snowstorms, Economy Vie for Public’s Attention

Amount of Storm Coverage Seen About Right

Summary of Findings

Americans say they tracked the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti more closely than any other major news story last week, but they also kept a close watch on news about the U.S. economy and the powerful snow storms that hit the nation’s East Coast and South.

Three-in-ten (30%) say they followed news about Haiti most closely, while about two-in-ten say they followed news about the economy (21%) or the storms (20%) more closely than any other major story. One-in-ten say they followed news about the opening of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, most closely, while smaller numbers say continuing safety concerns about Toyota vehicles (4%) and former President Clinton’s heart troubles (1%) were their top stories of the week.

And, in a week when stories about the massive snow storms filled more newshole than any other story, most Americans (70%) say the wintry weather received about the right amount of coverage. Just over two-in-ten (22%) say the storms received too much coverage; 5% say they received too little.

In general, majorities say each of the top stories asked about received the right amount of coverage. The exception is the economy. Reflecting Americans’ continuing concerns, only about half (46%) say the economy received the right amount of coverage. Many (34%) wanted more, saying news about the U.S. economy received too little coverage. These are among the findings in the latest News Interest Index survey, conducted Feb. 12-15 among 1,029 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Coverage of the storms – including those on the East Coast and in the South – made up 12% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. News about the economic crisis made up 10% of coverage. Coverage of the start of the Olympics – including the stunning death of a Georgian athlete during a training run on the luge course – made up 5% of the newshole examined by PEJ. The Haiti aftermath accounted for 5% as coverage continues to decline since the week the earthquake hit in mid-January. That was comparable to the percentage for news about Toyota’s troubles (5%). And former President Clinton’s heart problems made up 3% of coverage.

Public Keeps An Eye on Haiti

More than a month after the deadly earthquake struck Haiti, Americans continue to track its aftermath closely: 37% say they followed this story very closely last week. The percentage tracking the aftermath very closely has trended downward since the temblor first hit on Jan. 12 (60% followed this story very closely in the Jan. 15-18 survey), but it remains high. Three-in-ten say they followed this story more closely than the other major stories, making the earthquake aftermath the most closely followed story of the week.

Close to four-in-ten (39%) say they followed news about the snow storms very closely. Not surprisingly, interest was especially high in the Northeast (56% very closely) and the South (49% very closely), and less so in the Midwest (29%) or the West (16%). One-in-five say they followed last week’s storms more closely than any other story.

Interest in news about the U.S. economy remains strong as well: 35% say they followed this news very closely, down slightly from the previous week (43% very closely). About two-in-ten (21%) say this was the news they followed most closely.

Close to two-in-ten (18%) say they followed the start of the Winter Olympics very closely; 10% say they followed this news more closely than any other major story. The weekend the 2008 Summer Olympics began in China, 24% said they were followed the story very closely. That percentage rose to about 35% each week during the two weeks of the games.

With limited new developments, interest in the safety problems plaguing Toyota slipped slightly: 15% say they followed this news very closely, compared with 21% the previous week. This was the top story for 4%. Coverage was down as well. The story made up 5% of the newshole, compared with 11% one week earlier.

Just 11% say they followed news about Bill Clinton’s heart problems very closely. This story made up 3% of the newshole. The former president was quickly on the mend after a procedure to open up heart valves with two stents. In September 2004, 19% followed news about Clinton’s heart surgery very closely.

Top Stories Seen Getting Right Amount of Coverage

About three-in-ten (29%) say there was too much coverage of Clinton’s heart procedure last week, though more than half (56%) say this story received the right amount of coverage. Just 7% say it received too little coverage. Republicans (31%) and independents (36%) are more likely than Democrats (22%) to say that Clinton’s health problems received too much coverage.

Assessments of the amount of Haiti coverage also show a partisan divide. About two-in-ten (19%) Americans say the earthquake aftermath received too much coverage last week, including 27% of Republicans and 11% of Democrats. Independents mirror the population as a whole (19%). Still, close to two-thirds of the public – across partisan lines – say the story received the right amount of coverage.

Seven-in-ten say the media gave the right amount of coverage to the fierce winter snow storms that hit the east coast and the south last week. While two-in-ten overall say the storms received too much coverage, more men (28%) than women (17%) say this. Regionally, those in the Northeast (29%) and in the Midwest (25%) are most likely to say the storm received too much coverage.

Men and women also have differing views of news about braking and acceleration problems with Toyotas. About a third of men (32%) say this story has gotten too much coverage, compared with 19% of women. Overall, 25% of Americans say the story has gotten too much coverage. More than half (56%) say the story has gotten the right amount of coverage.

Just under half (46%) say economic news received the right amount of coverage. About a third (34%) say it received too little coverage. That’s more than double the percentage saying too little coverage for any of the other stories asked about in the survey. Independents are most likely to say the economy received too little coverage (39%), compared with Democrats or Republicans (both 28%). Overall, 16% say economic news received too much coverage.

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 Feb. 8-14, 2010, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected Feb. 12-15, 2010, from a nationally representative sample of 1,029 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 landline 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 4 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.