August 15, 2007

Two Decades of American News Preferences

by Michael J. Robinson, special to the Pew Research Center

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Summary

Although the size and scope of the American news media have changed dramatically since the 1980s, audience news interests and preferences have remained surprisingly static. Of the two major indices of interest that are the focus of this report — overall level of interest in news and preferences for various types of news — neither has changed very much. This has been especially true for news preferences; Americans continue to follow — or to ignore — the same types of stories now as they did two decades ago. News “tastes,” measured among 19 separate categories of news, have barely shifted at all: Disaster News and Money News continue to be of greatest interest to the U.S. public; Tabloid News and Foreign News remain the least interesting.

Overall News Interest:

The overall level of “interest” in news has changed somewhat during the last two decades, but that limited change has not indicated any clear pattern of greater, or lesser, interest across 20-plus years.

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The Pew News Interest Index (NII), which measures how closely news audiences follow stories of all kinds, has shifted only modestly. The index — based on the percentage of the American news audience who say they are following a story “very closely” — ranges from 0% percent through 100%. During the last 21 years (1986-2006), the average percentage of adult Americans following all stories “very closely” is 26%. While “very close” attention is a demanding standard, this ratio of approximately one-in-four suggests that, at least with respect to most day-to-day reporting, the American news audience is only modestly interested.

The overall intensity of attention varies somewhat, decade by decade, likely reflecting to some degree the intrinsic interest and importance of events in the news. In the latter half of the 1980s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, the news index averaged 30%. In relatively halcyon 1990s, the average fell to 23%. In the first decade of this century, with the country traumatized by terror attacks, a faltering economy and engagement of U.S. troops abroad, the index rebounded but only to its 1980s level of 30%.

While news interest does appear to shift as a consequence of real-world circumstances, no such shift is observed as a consequence of “news era” or changing technologies. Across three different “news eras” — the “network news” era; the “cable-news” era, and the early years of the “on-line news” era — overall interest in the news has held reasonably steady.

Specific News Interests:

The index reveals that Disaster News — reports about catastrophes, man-made or natural — garners the greatest interest. Money News — stories about employment, inflation, and prices, especially gasoline prices — ranks second overall. At the other end of the topic spectrum, Foreign News — news from abroad unlinked to the U.S. — engenders the least interest. Tabloid News — stories about entertainers, celebrities and personalities — does almost as poorly. Conflict` News — stories about war, terrorism, and social violence — consistently elicits much more news attention than does Tabloid or even Political News.

Continuous News Tastes:

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On balance, there is scant evidence that during the last quarter century — despite major changes in the news “menu” — the American audience has moved toward a diet of softer news. News tastes have become neither less nor more serious since the 1980s.

The evidence shows that the much-discussed soft-news genre — indicated here by Tabloid News — has not grown more alluring for the national audience. This is not to say that media outlets have erred financially in devoting substantial coverage to celebrity and scandal. In today’s competitive news environment, small ratings shifts can translate into big economic gains. A cable news outlet doesn’t have to engage a national audience on a story like Anna Nicole Smith to justify the saturation coverage. Engaging the tabloid audience can pay off.

Only one category among the six “super categories” of news exhibits a clear-cut trend. Close attention to happenings that affect family finances directly or indirectly has increased decade-by-decade. In fact, since 2000, Money News has engendered more than twice as much interest as has Tabloid News. On the other hand, news about politics or other non-military happenings in other nations remains as uninteresting to audiences now as in the 1980s. Foreign News has consistently been at, or near, the bottom of the index for 21 years.

The News Interest Index:

These conclusions are based on data collected from 165 separate national surveys, all conducted by the Center for the People & the Press beginning in 1986. All told, nearly 200,000 adult Americans have been interviewed for this on-going examination of news preferences.

Since its inception the news interest index has been derived by asking poll respondents “how closely” they have followed a story, or a group of stories, that were front-page news at the time of the polling. Each respondent is given four choices to this “how closely” question — “very”; “fairly”; “not too closely”; “not at all closely,” but in constructing the index only the “very closely” response is used as the best approximation of actual news interest. Unless otherwise noted, all the statistics included here are predicated upon the percentage of respondents who said they were following any given story “very closely.”

That question has now been asked with respect to 1,300 news stories. Many of them are continuous and on-going, such as the war in Iraq. Some are unique, time-limited events, such as the death of Princess Diana. All stories were major news stories at the time the polling was conducted.

Two Stories Involving NASA: Then and Now

Although the evidence presented in this report involves literally hundreds of news stories, two stories connect the earliest findings with the most recent in illustrating the constancy in public attention to different types of news. Interestingly, both involve the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The first of these stories, the explosion of NASA’s space-shuttle Challenger, falls within the category of Disaster News. The News Interest Index began in the wake of that first space shuttle disaster, back in January, 1986. That initial NII survey showed that fully 80% of the adult population followed “very closely,” a level of intensity comparable to that evoked by the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.

Contrast this with a recent, but very different NASA-related story. In February 2007, NASA, again, became the focus of intense national news coverage. This time, instead of human tragedy, the news concerned scandalous behavior. Veteran astronaut, Lisa Nowak, was arrested and charged with kidnapping a romantic rival in a love-story gone wrong.

News coverage of Nowak’s behavior — coverage which was both considerable and controversial — wound up producing remarkably little expressed public interest. The NII poll conducted immediately after the story broke revealed that only 10% of the audience followed this scandal story “very closely.” In other words, attention paid to this NASA-related scandal was merely one-eighth the attention paid to the Challenger disaster.

These two stories — and the attention audiences gave to each — epitomize some of the most important realities concerning news interest since the 1980s. Then, as now, Disaster News rivets audiences. Then, as now, Tabloid News fails to do the same.

Journalists might well predict and easily accept that disaster stories always “sell.” But journalists might not predict that tabloid reporting sells so poorly. In fact, journalists may find it difficult to believe that scandal and celebrity reporting fails to engage the national audience, an understandable skepticism that will be addressed at length in the second section of this report.

Skepticism notwithstanding, both of these patterns of news interest have manifested themselves repeatedly during the last three decades: Disaster News engages audiences; Tabloid News, not so much.

As now, scandals back in the 1980s also failed to engage news consumers. For example, news reports about Congressman Barney Frank living with a male prostitute triggered a serious scandal in Washington in 1989. But the Frank scandal barely registered with the national news audience, with an index score of 6%. Moreover, disasters of today — like the loss of a second space-shuttle in 2003 — still evoke huge levels of interest and concern. In fact, the in-flight disintegration of Columbia engendered about eight times as much interest as had news of Congressman Frank’s scandalous sex-life from 15 years before.

Interestingly enough, that ratio — eight-to-one — is the same as that which divided interest between the Challenger disaster of yesteryear and Nowak’s scandalous sex-life of today. In essence, no matter how one compares these NASA-related poll results — whether across decades or across topics — the same conclusion emerges. When shown sensational stories about human tragedy and sensational stories about scandalous behavior, Americans will now — as then — express great interest in the first type of reportage and little interest in the second.

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