January 18, 2011

Arizona Rampage Dominates Public’s News Interest

Bipartisan Praise for Obama Memorial Speech

Summary of Findings

The aftermath of the deadly shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., dominated the public’s news interest last week as President Obama’s speech at a memorial service won praise – across party lines – among those who had read or heard about the event.

About half of the public (49%) says they very closely followed news about the Jan. 8 shootings that left six dead and 13 wounded, including the gunman’s apparent target, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. That is similar to the 45% that very closely followed news about the mass killings at Virginia Tech in April 2007 but less than the 68% who said they tracked news about the April 1999 shootings at a Columbine High School in Colorado that closely.

According to the latest News Interest Index survey, conducted Jan. 13-16 among 1,000 adults, Americans also followed news about the economy (37% very closely) and powerful winter storms that hit the east coast (35% very closely). But when the public is asked which story they followed most closely last week, both rank far behind the Tucson shootings.

The shootings and their aftermath also dominated media coverage, accounting for 57% of the newshole for the week, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

Most Americans say they heard at least a little about Obama’s speech at the Jan. 12 memorial service at the University of Arizona (75%). Among that group, nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say the address was either excellent (36%) or good (33%), while 21% rate the speech as only fair (15%) or poor (6%).

More than eight-in-ten Democrats (83%) say the speech was excellent (55%) or good (28%). Just 11% say it was only fair and less than 1% rate it as poor.

Majorities of Republicans and independents who had heard about the speech also rated it positively. Among Republicans, 56% say the speech was either excellent (18%) or good (37%); 23% say it was only fair and 12% rate it as poor. Two-third of independents (67%) give the speech a positive rating (31% excellent, 35% good). Two-in-ten (20%) are more negative (13% only fair, 7% poor).

Reaction to Palin Speech Divided

By contrast, the response to Sarah Palin’s comments about the shootings and their aftermath proved more mixed: 44% of those who heard at least a little about Palin’s comments say their reaction was very (14%) or mostly (30%) positive, while 41% say their reaction was very (20%) or mostly (21%) negative. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say they had heard at least a little about Palin’s comments, which were released on Jan. 12.

Among those who had heard about the speech by the former Alaska governor, the partisan divide in reaction is wide. Seven-in-ten Republicans (71%) say their reaction was very (26%) or mostly positive (45%), compared with just 25% of Democrats (8% very positive, 17% mostly positive). Independents largely mirror the public as a whole; 42% say their reaction was very (10%) or mostly positive (32%), while 39% say it was very (17%) or mostly negative (22%).

Too Much Palin?

Nearly half of the public (49%) says they are hearing too much about Palin, 29% say they are hearing about the right amount and 15% say they are hearing too little. Those numbers are little changed from when the question was last asked in November 2009, but the once-yawning gap in partisan views on this question has narrowed.

Currently, nearly six-in-ten Democrats (58%) say they are hearing too much about Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and a potential GOP candidate in 2012. Four-in-ten Republicans (40%) and 51% of independents say the same. In November 2009, amid the publicity for Palin’s book “Going Rogue,” 72% of Democrats said they were hearing too much about Palin, compared with 29% of Republicans and 50% of independents.

The Week’s Other News

In a week dominated by news about the Tucson shootings, Americans continued to track news about the economy. Nearly four-in-ten (37%) say they followed economic news very closely, a level that has changed only slightly in recent weeks. Still, just 12% say this was the news they followed most closely.

About a third (35%) say they followed news about winter storms in the eastern United States very closely; 16% say this was the news they followed most closely. Not surprisingly, interest was highest in the north east and the south.

More than one-in-ten (13%) say they followed news about floods in Australia very closely; 3% say this was the news they followed most closely. Two other breaking foreign stories barely registered with the public. Just 4% say they followed news about the collapse of the Lebanese government very closely; 1% says this was the news they followed most closely. And 3% say they followed news about the independence vote in southern Sudan very closely. Less than 1% say this was the story they followed most 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 January 10-16, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected January 13-16, from a nationally representative sample of 1,000 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 January 13-16, 2011 among a national sample of 1,000 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States (670 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 330 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 134 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older.

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 2010 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The sample is also weighted to match current patterns of telephone status based on extrapolations from the 2010 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 sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

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.

Cite this publication: “Arizona Rampage Dominates Public’s News Interest.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (January 18, 2011) http://www.people-press.org/2011/01/18/arizona-rampage-dominates-publics-news-interest/, accessed on July 23, 2014.