Summary of Findings
Americans, both black and white, generally agree with the punishment radio host Don Imus received for the racist and sexist remarks he made about the Rutgers University’s women basketball team. Nonetheless, there are substantial racial differences in views of Imus’s punishment, and an even bigger gap in opinions about news media’s coverage of the story.
Majorities of both whites (53%) and African Americans (61%) who have been following the Imus story say that the punishment he received was appropriate. But roughly twice as many whites as blacks believe his punishment was too tough (35% vs. 18%). On April 12, the talk show host’s morning radio program was cancelled by CBS. A day earlier, a cable television simulcast of the program on MSNBC was cancelled by NBC.
Fully 62% of whites say that news organizations are giving too much coverage to the Imus story. This compares with just 31% of African Americans who believe the controversy has been overcovered. A plurality of blacks (44%) says that the amount of coverage has been appropriate, while a sizable minority (18%) says it has gotten too little coverage.
The latest installment of Pew’s weekly News Interest Index, finds that public interest in the Imus story was fairly modest, particularly when compared with the news media’s intense focus on the controversy. The News Coverage Index for April 8-13, compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, showed that Imus’s downfall was the second most-covered story of 2007, filling 26% of the overall newshole for the week.
But the Imus story trailed the situation in Iraq as the week’s most closely followed story. About a quarter of Americans (26%) cited the situation in Iraq as the story they followed most closely, compared with 20% who cited reports about Imus’s remarks.
Imus-Type Comments Heard Frequently
More than four-in-ten Americans (42%) who have been following the Imus story say that, based on what they know about the radio host’s comments, they often or sometimes hear that kind of language used in their daily lives. African Americans – particularly black men – are far more likely than whites to say they frequently hear such language.
Overall, 55% of blacks who have heard a lot or a little about the story say they often or sometimes hear the sort of language that Imus used in denigrating the Rutgers players; by comparison, 38% of whites who have heard about the Imus story say they often or sometimes hear such language. There also are significant gender differences, among those in both races, in views of how often such language is used.
For example, about a third of black men (32%) say they often hear the sort of language that Imus used; this compares with 20% of black women. Among whites, 22% of men, but only 13% of women, say they frequently hear such language.
There also are large age differences in these perceptions, with young people much more likely than older Americans to report often or sometimes hearing this type of language. And younger African Americans, in particular, say they frequently hear the type of language Imus used. Fully 74% of African Americans under age 40 say they often or sometimes hear such language, compared with 44% of whites in the same age group.
Who Uses Offensive Language
Among those who have been following the Imus story, 38% say that “most” or “many” black males make racist or sexist remarks without thinking about it. By comparison, about a quarter of this group (27%) says that most or many white males use such language without thinking.
This is an issue on which blacks and whites generally agree: 39% of blacks say most or many African American males use racist or sexist language without thinking about it, while somewhat fewer blacks (31%) believe that white males use that kind of language unthinkingly. Attitudes are comparable among whites – 37% of whites say most or many black males make racist or sexist remarks, while 26% of whites say many or most white males make such comments.
Notably, a majority of African Americans under age 40 (53%) say that most or many black males make racist or sexist remarks without thinking about it. A smaller number of younger African Americans (39%) say most or many white males use such language.
News Interest: Week of April 9
The war in Iraq continued to attract broad public attention, despite drawing far less news coverage than the Imus flap. Overall, 34% of Americans say they followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely, and 26% cited the war as the story they followed most closely from April 12-16.
News about Imus’s remarks regarding the Rutgers women’s basketball team was the second most closely followed story: 24% say they followed this story very closely, and 20% named it as the story they tracked most closely.
The public paid less attention to the week’s other major stories. Fewer than one-in-ten cited the issue of immigration (8%), the Iraq policy debate (7%), the 2008 presidential campaign (6%), or the Duke lacrosse case (5%) as the story they followed most closely last week.
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.
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 Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.
Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample of 1,030, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
To gauge responses to the Don Imus story among both white and African American respondents, the survey included an oversample of 185 African Americans interviewed on two other ORC surveys conducted Thursday through Sunday, April 12-15. Demographic weighting was used to ensure that the survey results for the general public reflect the correct racial and ethnic composition of national adults. This oversample does not affect the margin of sampling error for the overall survey results.
For results based on the 286 African American respondents, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 6.5 percentage points. For results based on the 815 white respondents, the margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
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, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.
For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.pewresearch.org/journalism.