On the occasion of our transition from Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press to the Pew Research Center, we offer an overview of what we have learned during the past five years about the news stories that are followed closely by the public and how much Americans know about current events. We conducted 54 separate nationwide surveys and interviewed over 75,000 respondents on these subjects. Most polls were conducted from 1989 through 1995, but a few news interest surveys were conducted by the Gallup Poll for Times Mirror prior to opening of the Center.
We have learned that relatively few serious news stories attract the attention of a majority of adult Americans, excepting those that deal with national calamities or the use of American military force. The average story tested by the Center was followed very closely by only one in four (25%) respondents. A somewhat larger proportion (32% ) followed these stories fairly closely. On average, almost half the public paid little or no attention to the 480 major news stories in our data base.[TABLE NOT SHOWN]
Most attention went to stories of natural or man-made disasters and stories about wars and terrorism involving the United States or its citizens. Among the top 20 news stories in our data base, the Challenger disaster attracted the largest audience. Most of the other stories with huge audiences featured earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or American military actions. Exceptions are Rodney King and the story of baby Jessica who fell down a well in Texas in 1987.
In contrast, news about the failed marriages of Tom Cruise, Woody Allen and the British royals were at the very bottom of our list after five years of polling. But very low public interest in serious news stories is also reflected in our list of the least popular stories. Most notably, only 5% of Americans paid very close attention in late 1991 to news about the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia.[TABLE NOT SHOWN]
Categorizing our news interest data base according to subject, we found that an average of 45% of the public watched coverage of disasters and U.S. war/terrorism stories. Next most popular, with a core audience just under 30%, came news about the national economy, major Supreme Court rulings, large social issues that involved race and gender, and major scientific events. Washington news — reports about national issues, politics and elections — typically attracted about one in four Americans. Major international events were less interesting to the public, and even less so was news about wars that did not involve the United States or its citizens. Least interest went to political and celebrity scandals and personality news, with average audiences of only 17%.
The Demography of News Attentiveness
Center surveys over the years have underscored the different attentiveness levels of major demographic groups to major news stories. Our 1990 report, The Age of Indifference, detailed the large generation gap in this respect. Based on an analysis of historical polling data, it concluded that Americans under 30 years of age represented a “generation that knew less, cared less, and read newspapers less” than previous generations of young people. Our subsequent polling offers no reason to change this judgment. On average, only 20% of respondents aged 18- 29 paid close attention to the stories covered in the News Interest Index. Attentiveness rose to 23% among respondents 30-49 and to 29% among those 50 years and older. The generation gap was especially large for news stories that dealt with politics and policy (both domestic and international) and the economy. It all but disappeared for stories that dealt with social issues, celebrity scandal, and sports.[TABLE NOT SHOWN]
Education makes a large difference in news interest, with better educated people reporting more interest in serious news stories than those with fewer years of formal education. But our historical analyses of interest in the news revealed that level of education is no longer as good an indicator as it once was of public attention to the news. Instead, we are now struck by the sharply divergent news interests of men and women. As shown in the table above, men have paid much more attention to news about the US military, international politics, the economy and sports. Women have paid relatively more attention to news about disasters, court rulings, crime and celebrity scandal.
What Americans Know About Current Events
For the past five years, the Center has tested the knowledge of representative samples of the American public with a total of 172 questions about news events and people in the news. On average, 43% of the public answered the information questions correctly. Interestingly, this is higher than the average proportion of respondents who follow major news stories “very closely” (25%), which suggests that some information gets to those segments of the public that do not consider themselves highly attentive to the news.
The five information questions that drew the highest number of correct answers since 1989 were knowledge that: Nixon resigned his presidency (91% correct), the United States has a trade deficit with Japan (83%), Panama strongman Manuel Noriega hid in the Vatican embassy during the invasion (82%), the federal government spends more than it takes in (81%), and that Zsa Zsa Gabor’s notoriety in 1989 was due to an arrest in Beverly Hills (80%). At the other end of the information scale was scant knowledge about such things as how much American real estate is owned by foreign investors (4% were correct on a multiple choice question) and who were such news makers as then Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce (6%), Czech president Vaclav Havel (10%), British Prime Minister John Major as he took office (10%), and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) (12%).
While the public says that it pays little attention to news about celebrities and scandal — and indeed, strongly complains about over-coverage of such events — it more often answers questions about such stories correctly (58%) than it does questions about domestic policy issues (43%), domestic politics (42%), international news events (38%) and election campaign issues (34%).
Gender, Generation and Knowledge of News Events
In the Age of Indifference we reported that “the corollary to flagging news interest” was that young people were consistently less likely than middle-aged and older people to give the correct answer to questions on current events. In contrast, “survey results from the 1940’s through the 1970’s revealed that previous generations of younger people knew as much as — if not more than — older members of the population.” Our research since that writing has only served to confirm these conclusions. For example, an August 1995 survey about Congressional issues found that among the public at large, 21% knew at least three out of four well-reported facts: 1) that the House had passed more legislation than the Senate, 2) that the telecommunications bill would deregulate the telephone industry, 3) that Medicare’s long term solvency was in question, and 4) that Clinton opposed GOP proposals to lift the Bosnian arms embargo. Only 8% of respondents under 30 years of age knew these facts, compared to 23% among 30-49 year olds, 24% among 50-64 year olds, and 30% among those 65 years and older.
The same survey also uncovered a huge gender gap: 30% of men were knowledgeable about those Congressional items, compared to only 12% of women. This discrepancy was in fact part of a clear pattern. Men consistently know more about a wide range of issues than women. After analyzing a total of 159 information questions asked by the Center from 1989 to 1993, Georgetown University political scientist Diana Owen made the following observations:
- Men answered more questions correctly than women on a wide range of news issues. This is the case for domestic policy questions and questions about people in the news, but the gender gap is even wider for international news. Only on the subject of entertainment is there no information gap between men and women.
- Regarding news about women and women’s issues, there are virtually no sex differences in knowledge among men and women under age 30. However, women over 30 are slightly less informed about women newsmakers and stories about women than are their male counterparts.
- Education does little to mitigate the differences in levels of knowledge between women and men. College-educated men are significantly more knowledgeable than any other group. College-educated women are only slightly more informed than men without college degrees. Women without a college degree are the least knowledgeable, except for entertainment news; in this case, non-college educated women are more knowledgeable than women with degrees.
- Life situation factors have some influence on levels of knowledge for both women and men. Women who are employed full time are no more knowledgeable than women who are employed part time or not at all. However, educated women who work full time are more knowledgeable than educated women who do not work full time. The same holds true for men.
Overdosed on O.J.
No story burst onto the national consciousness faster than O.J. Simpson. Nearly half of the public (48%) followed the O.J. story “very closely” in the immediate wake of the white Bronco chase over Los Angeles freeways in June 1994. Nearly half of that audience disappeared by October, but those who remained were really hooked, especially when the live trial coverage started. We estimated that nearly 40 million Americans watched all or a lot of the live coverage on television. But it wasn’t for everyone. At one point, fully 90% of Americans said the O.J. story was receiving too much media attention, an all-time record level of complaint. Despite the large core audience for O.J. news, over half the public shunned the story for most of its run.
Concern about economic conditions rose and fell with the public’s perceptions of the economic cycle. Attentiveness rose in mid-1990 when 30% of Americans said they followed reports about the economy “very closely.” It increased rapidly for two years, peaking at 49% in early 1993, long after the economists had declared the recession over. Interest in news about the economy remained above the 30% level until mid-1994.
Appetite for Trivia
While less than one-third of the public followed serious stories “very closely” (i.e. Bosnian civil war, collapse of the Soviet Union), it could be twice or three times more attentive to pop culture and incidental news. In early 1990, for example, when only 21% were following the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, 74% of Americans had “heard a lot recently” about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 78% knew of the recall of Perrier water, and 76% correctly named George Bush’s least favorite vegetable. Broccoli.
News That Takes a Toll
In January 1993, we found that four in ten Americans had seen at least one of the three television movies made about the affair of “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher. Fully 18% of the public watched more than one of the movies made about her. Not surprisingly, we found that knowledge about what was happening in Bosnia decreased with the number of Amy Fisher movies watched. Those who viewed none knew more about the Balkan conflict than those who viewed one film, and they, in turn, knew more than those who saw two Fisher movies, etc.
It’s Not All C-SPAN and The New Republic
Late night shows, which are watched by 58% of Americans at least sometimes, were a forum for political education for a significant portion of the nation’s young voters in 1992. One out of five of the general public said they learned something new in the political jokes on the programs, a proportion that rose to 32% among those under 30 years old.