October 9, 2008

Beat the Press: Many Say Press has Been Too Tough on Sarah Palin

Positive Ratings for Coverage of Financial Crisis

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Strong majorities of the public say the press has been fair to John McCain, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. But fewer than four-in-ten (38%) say the press has been fair to Sarah Palin. Many more believe the press has been too tough on Palin (38%) than say it has been too easy (21%).

While opinions about Palin coverage are highly partisan, many independents share the view that the press has been too tough on the Alaska governor. Among independents, 41% say the press has been too hard on Palin, 20% say the press has been too easy and 36% say the press has been fair. Republicans overwhelmingly believe the press has been too hard on Palin (63%). Just 7% say the press has been too easy on her. Nearly one-in-five Democrats (18%) agree that coverage of Palin has been too tough.

Republicans are not as critical of press coverage of McCain. About half (48%) say the press has been fair to the Arizona senator, while 44% say the press has been too tough and 6% say too easy. Among the general public, six-in-ten say coverage of McCain has been fair.

While most Americans (60%) say coverage of Obama has been fair, many more say it has been too easy than too tough (31% vs. 7%). Democrats overwhelmingly believe their candidate has been treated fairly (81%). Among Republicans, 55% say the press has been too easy on Obama. Only 39% of Republicans say coverage of the Democratic nominee has been fair. Independents are somewhat less critical of the Obama coverage. On balance, though, independents share the view that the press has been too easy on Obama (36% too easy vs. 8% too tough). Two-thirds of the public says the press has been fair in its coverage of Joe Biden. Among those who see an imbalance, more say the press has been too easy on the Delaware senator.

Public Glued to Campaign News

Public interest in news about the presidential campaign reached a new high last week, though the national news was dominated by coverage of the faltering economy. Fully 57% of the public followed news about the election very closely and another 31% followed developments fairly closely.

About a month before Election Day, interest in campaign news is higher now than it has been in previous years in the final days before the election. Among registered voters, 61% say they are following campaign news very closely. On election weekend in 2004, 52% of voters were following campaign news very closely the weekend before the election, traditionally the high point of campaign interest. At the end of the 2000 campaign, only 39% of voters were following campaign news very closely in the days leading up to the election.

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Fueling the intense interest was the highly anticipated vice presidential debate. Fully 76% of voters say they watched at least part of the debate on television — more than half (53%) say they watched the entire debate and 23% said they watched some of it. That includes roughly equal proportions of Republicans, Democrats and independents. More voters say they watched Palin and Biden debate than watched the first presidential debate the previous week. A poll conducted the weekend of September 27-29 found that 70% watched some or all of the first presidential debate.

The latest Pew Weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted Oct. 3-6, shows that the images of both vice presidential candidates improved following the debate. Some 37% say their opinion of Palin has become more favorable in recent days, while 33% say it has become less favorable. Only 27% say their opinion of Palin hasn’t changed in recent days. The previous week, changing opinion about Palin was much more negative than positive: 38% said their view of Palin had become less favorable recently and only 20% said their view had become more favorable. Palin mainly won over Republicans and independents. Among independents, 39% say their opinion of McCain’s running mate has become more favorable recently.

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Opinions about Biden, which had been stable in previous weeks, have shifted considerably. More than half of the public (54%) say their views of Biden have changed in recent days. Among that group, the balance is decidedly positive. Roughly a third (34%) say their opinion of Biden has become more favorable in recent days, while 20% say their view of him has become less favorable.

Views of the presidential candidates also fluctuated last week. On balance, changing views of Obama were more positive (28% more favorable vs. 23% less favorable), while changing views of McCain were more negative (29% less favorable vs. 21% more favorable).

Economic News Dominates Public Interest and Media Coverage

The public paid close attention last week to news about the worsening financial crisis and the fate of an economic bailout package in Congress. For the second time in as many weeks, seven-in-ten Americans (69%) reported following news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely. That strong interest also continued to be bipartisan, attracting the very close attention from roughly equal percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

The intense congressional debate over legislation to use federal funds to stabilize financial markets — which was signed into law last Friday by President Bush — attracted the very close attention of 62% of the public. Americans followed the debate over the financial rescue plan slightly more closely than they followed the presidential campaign (57% very closely).

For the media, economic news was the most heavily covered news item last week and among the biggest stories of the last year and a half. The financial crisis received 45% of the national newshole, according to the News Coverage Index prepared by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That made it the most heavily covered non-campaign story since the Virginia Tech shootings in April, 2007.

Reactions to Financial Coverage

The public gives the media relatively good ratings for its coverage of the complicated financial crisis and government efforts to address it. A solid majority (58%) says the press has done an excellent (17%) or good (41%) job in covering recent economic news. Four-in-ten say the press has done only a fair (25%) or poor job (15%).

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Moreover, a solid majority of Americans say that the press struck the right balance in how much attention it devoted to the economy. Six-in-ten (61%) say the story got the right amount of coverage, while 23% say the story received too little coverage. Only 14% say the story has received too much coverage.

While views of media coverage of the financial crisis are more positive than negative, opinions about how the press has covered the government rescue plan are more evenly divided. When asked about media coverage of the government’s plan to invest billions to try to keep financial institutions and markets secure, Americans are split between saying the press handled the story about right (44%) and saying it failed to be critical enough in its reporting (42%). Just one-in-ten say that the press was too critical in how it reported on the government’s financial plan.

Republicans are more critical than Democrats of the job that the press has done covering overall economic developments: about half (51%) of Republicans rate the coverage as excellent or good, while two thirds (66%) of Democrats rate it excellent or good. Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say that the economic turmoil has received too much coverage (20% vs. 11%), though a solid majority (62%) of Republicans believe that the media devoted the right amount of attention to the subject. On the government’s financial bailout plan specifically, slightly more Democrats (44%) than Republicans (36%) say that the press could have been more critical in how it reported the story.

Paying Attention to Financial News

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Americans are aware of many specific aspects of the financial crisis, though some events have registered more widely than others in recent weeks. Almost two-thirds (64%) reported hearing a lot about the Federal Reserve Bank’s loan to AIG insurance company; 59% heard a lot about Lehman Brothers investment bank filing for bankruptcy; and a comparable percentage (58%) heard a lot about the government’s $700 billion bailout plan.

Fewer Americans reported hearing a lot about a new jobs report last week that showed a loss of more than 150,000 jobs in September (37%) and news from major automakers reporting steep declines in sales (32%). Two-in-ten heard a lot about the state of California requesting a $7 billion emergency loan from the federal government, while 41% heard nothing at all about this.

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 agenda. 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 from September 29 – October 5 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected October 3-6 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

Public is Hearing a Lot about the Polls

In a sign of the great attention paid by the media to the election horse race, half of the public (50%) say they have heard a lot about the latest polls on the presidential contest. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) say they are following the polls a little; just one-in-ten (11%) say they have heard nothing at all about what the polls are showing.

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Meanwhile, the public is just as familiar with recent political skits on “Saturday Night Live” portraying Palin as they are with the interviews the governor did with CBS’s Katie Couric. Four-in-ten (42%) say they have heard a lot about Tina Fey’s portrayal of Palin on SNL, while 41% have heard a lot about Couric’s interviews with the candidate. Notably, awareness of the Couric interviews increased over the course of the week — only 31% had heard about the interviews the previous week.

Among those who have heard about Palin’s interview on CBS, 56% have actually seen some or all of the interview segments — 44% saw them on television, 7% saw them on the internet and 5% saw them on both.

Relatively few Americans heard a lot about John McCain’s decision late in the week to pull his campaign resources out of Michigan. Roughly a third (34%) heard a lot about this and an equal percentage heard a little about it. Democrats were somewhat more likely than Republicans to have heard a lot about McCain’s decision to stop campaigning in Michigan (38% vs. 28%).

Other News of the Week

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With the media and the public so highly focused on the economy and the presidential campaign last week, other news stories attracted relatively little attention. While 29% of the public say they followed news about the current situation in Iraq very closely, only 2% listed this as the single news story they were following more closely than any other. The media devoted 1% of its overall coverage to events in Iraq.

One-in-five Americans (19%) paid very close attention to the passing of legendary actor Paul Newman; 2% said this was their most closely followed story. Only 12% followed the discovery of Steve Fossett’s missing plane very closely.

Find more about news interest and the campaign at people-press.org.