May 12, 2010

Public Tracks Oil Spill, Media Focuses More On Times Square

News About Economy Remains Mixed

Summary of Findings

Americans tracked the worsening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico more closely than other major news stories last week, while the media focused on both the underwater oil leak and the investigation into the attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square.

A third of the public (33%) says they most closely followed news about the oil leak now threatening the coasts of several southeastern states. Fewer say they followed news about the Times Square investigation (13%) or the new Arizona immigration law (16%) more closely than any other story, according to the latest News Interest Index survey, conducted May 7-10 among 1,006 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

In terms of coverage, the media devoted 25% of the newshole to the Times Square investigation and 20% to the Gulf Coast oil leak, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

When it comes to the economy, the public sees little change in the tenor of recent news. Two-thirds (66%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, matching the numbers from early April and early March.

Americans give generally high marks to the press for its handling of the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico (66% rate coverage as excellent or good) and the investigation into the Times Square bomb attempt (63% excellent or good). Opinions are more measured about press performance covering the new Arizona law that gives police more authority to question people they suspect might be illegal immigrants (48% excellent or good).

Rating News About the Economy

Public views about the mix of economic news have changed little since the start of 2010. Currently, 66% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, about the same as the 65% recorded Jan. 8-11. About three-in-ten (29%) say they are hearing mostly bad news, while 4% say they are hearing mostly good news. Those numbers also are little changed this year.

Among partisans, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they are hearing mostly bad news (35% vs. 21%). Independents fall in the middle (28% mostly bad). Close to seven-in-ten Democrats (72%) and independents (68%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, compared with 61% of Republicans. Few in any group report hearing mostly good news (7% of Democrats, 4% of independents and 2% of Republicans).

Perceptions of news about the job situation show a slight improvement over last month and a larger improvement since the start of the year. Close to four-in-ten (38%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about jobs, compared with 33% in April and 31% in January. That is the highest percentage saying this since the question was first asked in June 2009 (27%). Just more than half (52%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the job situation, not statistically different from 56% last month but down from 61% in January. That number stood at 71% last June.

On the other hand, perceptions of news about the financial markets have become more negative following last week’s dramatic drop in stock prices worldwide. Most of the survey was completed before the markets surged upwards on Monday.

About four-in-ten (41%) say they have been hearing mostly bad news about the markets, up 11 points from 30% one month earlier. In early April, 15% said they were hearing mostly good news about the financial markets. Now, 6% say that. The percent that says they have been hearing a mix of good and bad is essentially unchanged (49%).

The public perceives no real change in news about real estate values or prices for food and consumer goods. Currently, 42% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about real estate values, 41% say they are hearing mostly bad news and 12% say they are hearing mostly good news. Fully 46% say they are hearing a mix of news about prices for food and consumer goods, 37% say they are hearing mostly bad news and 8% say they are hearing mostly good news about this.

High Interest in News About Gulf Oil Spill

As coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico changed from a story about a deadly oil rig explosion to one about a potentially catastrophic threat to the Gulf Coast, public interest grew and has stayed high. Shortly after the April 20 explosion, 21% said they were they were following the story very closely.

One week later, as the oil slick spread, 44% said they were following the story very closely. Interest had doubled across most demographic and political groups. Now, 46% say they followed the story very closely last week as the slick approached land and oil continued to flow from the underwater well. A third (33%) say this was the story they followed most closely, much more than any other news story in the survey.

Coverage of the story ramped up as well. The week the story broke (April 19-25), it accounted for 5% of the newshole measured by PEJ. The following week that had grown to 16%. Last week it accounted for 20% of coverage.

The public also continued to track news about the new Arizona law that gives police greater authority to question people they suspect might be illegal immigrants. Close to four-in-ten (38%) say they followed this story very closely; 16% say this was the story they followed most closely. Coverage, on the other hand, fell off significantly. News about the immigration law made up 2% of coverage, down from 16% one week earlier.

Interest in the investigation and arrests following the attempted car bombing in Times Square was similar: 37% say they followed this story very closely, while 13% say this was the story they followed most closely. News about the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, reports about potential links to the Taliban in Pakistan and the implications on U.S. anti-terror policies accounted for 25% of the newshole, higher than any other story last week.

The public also continued to keep a watch on economic news, with 42% saying they followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely. Just over one-in-ten (11%) say this was the news they followed most closely. News about the economy – separating out news about the Greek financial crisis – accounted for 8% of coverage.

About three-in-ten (29%) say they very closely followed news about flooding in Nashville, Tenn., and other parts of the Southeast; 11% say this was the story they followed most closely. News about the flooding accounted for 4% of coverage, according to PEJ.

About two-in-ten (19%) say they very closely followed news about the financial crisis in Greece and violent protests there. Just 4% say this was the story they followed most closely, while news about the crisis made up 4% of coverage.

Looking at Coverage

The public gives generally good marks to the press for its coverage of both the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and the investigation into the attempted car bombing in Times Square. Perceptions of coverage of the contentious fight over Arizona’s new immigration law are not as positive.

In all three cases, those who say they were following the stories very closely are more likely to rate the coverage positively than those following l
ess closely.

About a quarter of the public rate coverage of the oil leak as excellent (23%), while another 43% rate it as good. About two-in-ten (18%) rate it as only fair; 12% say it has been poor. Among those following very closely, 32% rate coverage as excellent. That drops to 16% among those following less closely.

A similar pattern is evident in ratings of coverage of the Times Square bomb attempt. About two-in-ten (21%) say coverage has been excellent, 42% say good, 21% say only fair and 10% say poor. Among those following very closely, 34% rate the coverage as excellent; fewer (13%) among those following less closely rate the coverage that highly.

Fewer rate coverage of the debate over the Arizona immigration law as excellent (13%), while 41% say it has been good. A quarter (25%) rate press coverage as only fair and 19% rate it as poor. Among those following very closely, 20% rate the coverage as excellent, compared with 8% of those following less closely.

Many Aware of Recall of Children’s Medicines

Most Americans say they heard at least a little about a recall of many children’s medicines, including Tylenol and Motrin (29% a lot, 40% a little). About as many say they heard at least a little about plans for a merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines (19% a lot, 47% a little).

Fewer than half say they heard that much about elections in Great Britain that ousted the Labor Party after 13 years of controlling Parliament (12% a lot, 35% a little); 54% say they heard nothing at all about this. Fewer still had heard at least a little about a parody video made by soldiers in Afghanistan that had gotten media attention as it spread on the internet. Just 7% say they heard a lot about the video of soldiers dancing to the Lady Gaga song “Telephone;” 27% say they heard a little about this. Two-thirds (66%) heard nothing at all.

There are few differences by demographics or partisanship when it comes to familiarity with these news stories. Women are more likely than men to have heard a lot about the recall of children’s medicines. Still, just 34% of women and 24% of men heard a lot about this. College graduates are more likely than those without a college degree to say they heard a lot about the British elections (24% versus 6%).

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 May 3-9, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 7-10, from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 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. (For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.) 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, under the direction of Infogroup/ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). The sample is produced by ORC from data provided by Marketing Systems Group. Interviews are conducted in English. Data are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, region and population density to parameters from the March 2009 Census Bureau’s Current Population survey. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the current survey, conducted May 7-10, 2010:

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.