October 7, 2010

Public Focuses More on Economy than Election

Education Debate Also Draws Interest

Summary of Findings

The 2010 congressional elections dominated news coverage last week, but not the public’s attention. Americans continued to focus most closely on news about the nation’s struggling economy and about four-in-ten (39%) say news reports portray the economy “about the way it really is.”

Smaller, roughly equal percentages say the media make the economy seem worse (28%) or better (27%) than it actually is, according to the latest News Interest Index survey of 1,002 adults conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 3 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Those numbers are little changed since June, but the percentages that say news reports present the economy as better or worse than it actually is have shifted since October 2008. At that point – when the depths of the economic crisis were becoming more clear and the nation was nearing the presidential election – many thought coverage was overly negative; 45% said news reports presented the economy as it was, 40% said news reports made conditions seem worse than they were and just 11% thought news reports painted too rosy a picture.

Looking at the public’s news interest last week, nearly three-in-ten (28%) say they followed news about the economy most closely, while 12% say they followed news about this year’s congressional elections that closely.

The media devoted 26% of its coverage to the November midterms, nearly three times the 9% of newshole taken up by economic news, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Shifting Perceptions of Economic Coverage, 2008-2010

As the economic crisis worsened in 2008, the percentage of Americans that said news reports were portraying the economy as worse than it actually was rose slightly from June to October. This year, as the recovery slowed, perceptions of economic coverage changed little between June and October.

The changes in perceptions of media coverage since October 2008, however, vary dramatically by party. Two years ago, more than half of Republicans (55%) said the press made the economy seem worse than it really was, a view shared by 42% of independents but just 27% of Democrats. Currently, 24% of Republicans say the press makes the economy look worse than it is —a 31-point drop since this time in 2008. Republicans are now much more likely to say the press makes the economy look better than it really is (37% now vs. 9% two years ago). At each point, about a third of Republicans have seen coverage of the economy about as it is.

Fewer independents now say the economy is made to look worse that it is (42% in 2008, 31% now), while far more say the economy is portrayed as better than it is (10% in 2008, 30% now). In 2008, 43% of independents said the media showed the economy as it actually was; that has dropped to 32% this year.

The changes have been much more subtle among Democrats. Currently, 29% of Democrats say the press portrays the economy as worse than it really is, virtually the same as two years ago. Still, Democrats are slightly less likely to say the press is getting it right when it comes to the economy than they were in 2008 (56% then, 47% now).

How the Press Covers Education, the Terrorism Threat, Afghanistan

Roughly four-in-ten Americans say news reports portray the U.S. public education system (44%), the threat of terrorism in the U.S. (44%) and the situation in Afghanistan (38%) about the way they really are. The rest of the public is evenly divided over whether the press makes public education seem better (22%) or worse (23%) than it really is.

Americans, however, are more likely to say the media make the terrorism threat seem worse than it really is (28%) than make it seem better (17%). About a quarter (26%) say news reports make the situation in Afghanistan seem better than it really is, while slightly fewer (21%) say news reports make the situation there seem worse than it really is.

Although women generally are more likely to follow stories that concern children more closely than are men, there is no difference in their assessments of media coverage of schools. There also is no difference by party, overall, but conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are notably more likely than others to say the press makes the U.S. education system look better than it is. About three-in-ten of each of these groups (29%) say this, a view shared by about half as many moderate and liberal Republicans and conservative and moderate Democrats. A quarter of independents also express this view.

When it comes to the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil, Republicans (27%) are far more likely than Democrats (11%) to say the media portray the situation as better than it actually is; 21% of independents agree. Half of Democrats say the press portrays the terrorism threat about as it actually is, a view shared by 42% of independents and 39% of Republicans. There is no significant difference in the proportions of Republicans, Democrats and independents who say the media make the threat of terrorism look worse than it really is.

There also are no substantive differences in partisans’ perceptions of how the media cover the situation in Afghanistan, but men are somewhat more likely than women (24% versus 18%) to say the press makes Afghanistan look worse than it really is.

What the Public is Hearing About

More than a third of Americans (37%) say they heard a lot last week about a Rutgers University student who committed suicide after other students streamed live video of him having a sexual encounter in his dorm room over the internet. About a quarter (24%) say they heard a lot about a controversy concerning the immigration status of California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s housekeeper. About as many (23%) say they heard a lot about a recall of Fisher Price toys and other products. Fewer had heard a lot about five soldiers charged with the murder of Afghan civilians (15%) or about a rally of liberal groups in Washington, D.C., last weekend (10%).

More than half heard at least a little about each of these stories – except the Washington rally. Just 38% say they heard at least a little about this. In late August, 42% had heard at least a little about talk show Glenn Beck’s rally on the National Mall.

Women (42%) were more likely to have heard a lot about the suicide of the Rutgers student than were men (32%), and Democrats (47%) were more likely to have heard a lot about this story than were independents (37%) or Republicans (33%). Though the story focused on a college freshman, just 24% of 18-to-29-year-olds say they heard a lot about it, compared with about four-in-ten (41%) older adults.

The Week’s Top News

Though Americans focused most closely last week on economic news, 16% say they followed the debate over ways to improve the nation’s public education system more closely than any other top story. About a quarter (26%) say they followed this story very closely. News about the education debate accounted for 6% of the newshole.

More than one-in-ten (12%) say they followed news about the midterm elections most closely. A quarter (25%) say they followed this news very closely, comparable to the levels of interest each week since the start of September. The media devoted 26% of coverage to the elections.

News about al Qaeda’s alleged plans for terror attacks in Europe was the most c
losely followed story for 5%, while the story garnered 2% of coverage. Similarly, 3% say they followed news about peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians most closely; 2% of the news coverage was dedicated to that issue.

The situation in Afghanistan attracted a little more attention from both the public and the media: 9% say this is the story they followed most closely, and 4% of the coverage focused on this subject. Almost a quarter say they followed news about Afghanistan very closely (23%), while 18% say the same about possible al Qaeda plans for terror attacks in Europe. About one-in-ten people (11%) say they followed news about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks very closely.

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 September 27 –October 3, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 30-October 3, 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. (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 Thursday through Sunday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a national sample of 1,002 adults living in the continental United States, 18 years of age or older, from September 30-October 3, 2010 (671 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 331 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 132 who had no landline telephone). Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English.

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin, region, and population density to parameters from the March 2009 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The sample is also weighted to match current patterns of telephone status based on extrapolations from the 2009 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size within the landline sample. 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 survey:

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.