November 17, 2010

Midterm Elections Still Top Public Interest

Economic News Seen as a Mix of Good and Bad

Summary of Findings

The public continued to focus most closely on the outcome of the midterm elections last week as news coverage highlighted their impact on the balance of power and the agenda in Washington.

A quarter of the public (25%) says they followed news about the election outcome more closely than any other major news. Nearly as many (20%) say they followed news about the still-struggling economy most closely, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted Nov. 11-14 among 1,001 adults.

The public’s perceptions of economic news remain mixed, but are far less positive than earlier this year. Roughly half (53%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy; 41% say they are hearing mostly bad news while just 5% say they are hearing mostly good news.

Those numbers have changed little since July, when perceptions of economic news took a turn for the worse. A month before that, nearly two-thirds (65%) said economic news was mix of good and bad and 30% said it was mostly bad.

There continue to be wide partisan differences in views of economic news. About two-thirds of Democrats (66%) describe economic news as a mix of good and bad, compared with 49% of independents and 45% of Republicans. More than half of Republicans (53%) say the news about the economy has been mostly bad, as do 44% of independents and just 26% of Democrats.

Very few people (5%) continue to say the recent economic news has been mostly good. Since December 2008, the proportion saying economic news is mostly good has remained below 10%, with the exception of one survey in August 2009 (11% mostly good). In the current survey, just 6% of Democrats, 5% of independents and 1% of Republicans say the news has been mostly good.

Perceptions of economic news are about the same among those who follow this news very closely and those who follow it less closely. About half in each group say the news is a mix of good and bad (54% less closely, 51% very closely).

The Week’s News

While the public tracked news about the midterm elections and the economy most closely last week, there was no dominant story for the media: 12% of coverage was devoted to the election outcomes, while 9% was focused on the economy and an identical percentage on President Obama’s trip to Asia, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

A week earlier, which included Election Day, Nov. 2, 57% of coverage was devoted to the elections, making it one of the biggest stories since the presidential elections two years earlier.

News about the Carnival Cruise ship stranded off the coast of Mexico without power for several days accounted for 4% of the newshole, but 15% of the public say this was the news they followed most closely last week. Women were more likely to follow this story very closely than men (18% vs. 12%). More than one-in-five (22%) of those 50 and older say they followed this news very closely, compared with 10% of those 18 to 49.

Nearly two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about President Obama’s trip to Asia very closely; 7% say this was the news they followed most closely. In early April 2009, shortly after Obama took office, 25% said they very closely followed news about his first European trip and meetings with world leaders; 22% said the trip was the news they followed most closely that week.

Just 13% say they very closely followed news last week about the publication of George W. Bush’s book about his life; 5% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about the new book, “Decision Points,” made up 4% of coverage measured by PEJ. About a quarter of Republicans (24%) say they followed news about the book very closely, compared with 9% of Democrats and 10% of independents.

Another 15% say they followed news about proposals to reduce the federal deficit unveiled by the leaders of a presidential panel; 2% say this was the news they followed most closely. News about the proposals accounted for 7% of coverage. There were no significant differences among partisans in the numbers tracking this news very closely.

Cigarette Labels and Mysterious Trails in the Sky

Most Americans say they heard at least a little last week about the graphic warning labels for cigarette packages proposed by the Food and Drug Administration as another means to discourage smoking. Close to two-in-ten (17%) say they heard a lot about this and 38% heard a little; 44% say they heard nothing at all.

Similar numbers heard at least a little about the video taken off the coast of Southern California of what some thought showed a mysterious missile trail in the sky (18% a lot, 39% a little). More than four-in-ten (42%) say they heard nothing at all about the video, which experts now say likely showed the condensation trail from an aircraft.

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 November 8-14, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected November 11-14, from a nationally representative sample of 1,001 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 1,001 adults living in the continental United States, 18 years of age or older, from November 11-14, 2010 (670 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 331 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 136 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.