Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Rising Price of Gas Draws Most Public Interest in 2000

Rising Price of Gas Draws Most Public Interest in 2000

While the long and contentious election aftermath drew massive media coverage, the rising price of gasoline attracted the most public interest of any news story of 2000. In June, more than six-in-ten Americans (61%) said they paid very close attention to this story, which far outpaced the election and other news events of the year. Another quarter of the public followed the hikes in gas prices fairly closely, according to the Pew Research Center’s surveys of public attentiveness to domestic and international news stories.

Gas prices attracted considerably less press coverage than the election and other developments, but drivers are confronted with the price of gas every time they fill up their tanks. Consequently, interest in gas price hikes remained at a high level throughout the year. While overall attentiveness peaked in June, it reached 58% in March and 56% in October. Interest in gas prices has not been this high since the Persian Gulf crisis in 1990.

The October terrorist attack on the USS Cole ranked as the second most-closely followed news story, with 44% of Americans paying very close attention. Another automobile-related story, the recall of defective Firestone tires, ranked third, followed by the Michigan shooting of a 6-year-old girl by a classmate and the controversy over whether Elian Gonzalez should be returned to Cuba.

The post-election political and legal drama ranked only sixth, but it drew a relatively large and sustained audience for a political story. Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) tracked post-election developments very closely in the period just after the Nov. 7 election (Nov. 10-17), while another 38% followed this story fairly closely (76% total). That is comparable to the audience for major political stories of recent years, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal; 36% paid very close attention to that story during its peak period in September 1998 and another 36% followed it fairly closely.

While this year’s unprecedented political events found a sizable audience, many other important developments, in fields such as science and business, did not. Just 16% of the public paid very close attention to the breakthrough in mapping the human genome, and 17% very closely followed the merger between media giants AOL and Time-Warner. The federal ruling ordering the breakup of Microsoft drew more interest, with 28% paying very close attention.

Similarly, overseas stories failed to draw much interest, with the exception of the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The Middle East conflict attracted very close attention from three-in-ten Americans, making it the year’s top international story (aside from the attack on the Cole, which occurred in Yemen). Fewer than one-in-five closely followed the political turmoil in Yugoslavia that led to Slobodan Milosveic’s ouster, and just 10% paid very close attention to the floods that ravaged Mozambique.

Not surprisingly, more college graduates tended to follow major stories in the areas of science, business and international affairs than those with high school degrees. In July, for example, one-quarter of college graduates paid very close attention to the genome announcement, compared to just 12% of high school graduates. By contrast, the highest-rated story among high school graduates that month (23% paying very close attention) was the video showing Philadelphia police beating a carjacking suspect; 16% of college grads followed that story very closely.

This year’s top stories mark a departure from the 1990s, in that death and disaster did not lead the list. In the previous two years, school shootings — in Littleton, Colo. and Jonesboro, Ark. — attracted most attention. Before that, the death of Princess Diana, the crash of TWA flight 800 and the Oklahoma City bombing were the top-ranked news stories.

Election’s Last Act Popular

Interest in this year’s presidential campaign climbed through the early party primaries, sagged in the long post-primary season and spiked as the election went into its drawn-out endgame.

And the audience for the long Florida recount saga declined, but only modestly, after the initial post-election period, according to Pew’s daily tracking poll of 5,719 adults conducted from Nov. 10 to Dec. 14. The percentage of those following the recount very closely decreased from 38% in the initial post-election phase (Nov. 10-17), to 32% for the period between Nov. 18-Dec. 7. The audience then increased slightly (to 34% very interested) for the series of climactic developments between Dec. 8-14 — the Supreme Court ruling stopping the recounts, Al Gore’s concession speech and President-elect George W. Bush’s victory address.

There were big differences in the attentiveness of self-described voters and those who said they did not vote. At least 40% of voters said they paid very close attention to the news from Florida and elsewhere during each phase of the recount saga, and at least eight-in-ten said they followed the story very or fairly closely.

Non-voters were far less interested in the election story to begin with, and their attentiveness dropped sharply as the recount fight dragged on. Fewer than one-fifth (22%) paid very close attention in the week of Nov.10-17; that number dropped to 12% the following week before rising slightly in the final two tracking periods. While 61% of non-voters said they were very or fairly interested in the story in the first week after the election, barely half remained at least somewhat interested in the succeeding weeks.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Bush and Gore voters followed the recount battle in roughly equal numbers. But more supporters of the Texas governor stayed focused on the story. During the week of Nov. 10-17, 49% of Bush voters said they paid very close attention to the story, compared to 47% of Gore supporters. For the Nov. 27-Dec. 7 period, interest among Bush voters remained virtually unchanged, with 47% paying very close attention. But by then, 37% of Gore voters were intensely interested, a 10-point decline from the initial period. As the saga concluded, interest among supporters of both men rose slightly, but more Bush voters followed the story very closely (51% compared to 41% of Gore supporters).

The election news interest survey, conducted as part of the daily tracking poll of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. The list of the year’s top news stories is derived from monthly Pew Research Center surveys, which ask people how closely they follow selected news stories.

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