Summary of Findings
An overwhelming majority of the public (87%) says celebrity scandals receive too much news coverage. This criticism generally holds across most major demographic and political groups. Virtually no one thinks there is too little coverage of celebrity scandals.
When asked who is most to blame for the amount of coverage these kinds of stories receive, a majority of the public points to the media. Fully 54% of those who say celebrity news is over-covered also believe news organizations are to blame for giving these stories so much coverage. Roughly a third (32%) say the public is to blame for paying so much attention to them, and another 12% say the media and the public are both equally to blame.
Men and women generally agree on this question, although women tend to follow tabloid stories more closely than do men (52% of men and 55% of women blame news organizations for all the coverage). Republicans and Democrats also agree on this issue — though Republicans are often more critical of media practices (57% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats blame the media for too much tabloid news).
One noteworthy difference in opinion on the question of who is to blame for tabloid news coverage can be seen across age groups. Young people blame the public more than the news media. Nearly half of those under age 30 say it’s the public’s appetite for scandal news that spurs the amount of coverage, 31% say news organizations are to blame. Among those over age 30, large majorities blame the media, while less than 30% blame the public.
Throughout 2007 there has been no shortage of news involving Hollywood celebrities. Paris Hilton’s brief but memorable stint in jail became a national news story earlier this summer. During the first week in June, when she was briefly released from jail and then sent back, 4% of the national news was devoted to the story and 12% of the American public said the Hilton saga was the story they were following more closely than any other. Earlier in the year, Anna Nicole Smith’s death was an even bigger story. During the two days immediately following Smith’s death, nearly a quarter of the news from all sectors (24%) was devoted to this story. Public interest did not match the amount of coverage, and 61% of Americans said the story was being over-covered. Nonetheless, there was a core audience for the story that stuck with it throughout the next few weeks.
The vast majority of coverage of this year’s biggest celebrity scandals — namely Anna Nicole Smith’s death and Paris Hilton’s legal problems — could be seen on cable television news. During those first two days after Smith’s death fully half of cable news coverage was devoted to this story, making it by far the most heavily covered story of the week on cable. Similarly, the Paris Hilton story was featured much more prominently on cable TV news than on other sectors. In the week she was released and then sent back to jail, Hilton was the number three story on cable TV. It was the eighth most heavily covered story on network TV news and it didn’t make the top ten in the nation’s newspapers.
When asked which types of news organizations give celebrity scandals the most coverage, the public points to television but does not make a clear distinction between cable and network TV. Roughly a third (34%) say cable news networks such as CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News channel are the biggest purveyors of celebrity news. Another 27% say that the big three network news outlets give these stories the most coverage. Internet news websites are cited by 15% of the public, 8% name newspapers and 4% point to radio news programs.
Democrats are more likely to say cable news has the most celebrity coverage, as opposed to network news (37% say cable, 25% say network). Republicans are evenly split on the issue (31% cable, 30% network). Young people are among the most likely to list cable as the worst offender — 40% of those under age 30 say cable news has the most celebrity coverage, only 17% point to network news.
One of the most recent celebrity scandals, Lindsay Lohan’s arrest on a second drunken driving charge, generated little interest from the public. Only 8% followed this story very closely last week, another 19% followed the story fairly closely.
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 was collected from July 22-27 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected July 27-30 from a nationally representative sample of 1,027 adults.
Iraq and Campaign Top News Interests
In the news this week, the public’s interests and the news media’s agenda were not completely in sync. Interest in the Iraq war remained high, in spite of relatively little coverage of events on the ground. Fully a quarter of the public said the Iraq war was the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week, making it the public’s top news story. At the same time the national news media devoted 3% of its overall coverage to the war, making it the sixth most heavily covered news story of the week. The public’s sustained interest in the war, even during weeks where there the coverage is sparse, highlights the importance Americans place on the story.
The Iraq policy debate received slightly more news coverage last week than events on the ground in Iraq (4% of the newshole). Roughly a quarter of the public paid very close attention to the policy debate and 8% listed it as their most closely followed story of the week.
The 2008 presidential campaign was the most heavily covered news story last week. The majority of the campaign coverage was focused on the Democratic debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube where ordinary citizens submitted questions to the candidates via videotape. Nearly one-in-five Americans followed campaign news very closely and 12% said this was the story they followed most closely.
The second most heavily covered news story of the week involved Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the controversy surrounding his recent statements to Congress. The national news media devoted 6% of its overall coverage to this story. Public interest in this story remains relatively low, as the focus has expanded from Gonzales’s involvement in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys to questions about whether he misled Congress on important national security issues. This past week 15% of the public followed the Gonzales story very closely, unchanged from last month and down slightly from late-March and early-April when 22% were following the story very closely. Republicans and Democrats are following this story in nearly equal proportions — a change from earlier months when Democrats were tracking the story much more closely than Republicans.
The gruesome murders of a mother and her two daughters in Cheshire, Connecticut drew a relatively large news audience last week. Although only 12% said they followed the story very closely, 9% listed this as the story they followed most closely, making it the number three story in terms of news interest. Overall, the national news media devoted 2% of its coverage to this story.
News about last week’s stock market plunge was followed very closely by 15% of the public, 7% listed the stock market’s recent ups and downs as their most closely followed story. The national media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to stock market news.
Sports Scandals Hit the Front Page
Several sports scandals have become national news stories in recent weeks. The most prominent story involves allegations that NFL quarterback Michael Vick was involved with illegal dog fighting. One-in-five Americans (21%) followed this story very closely last week another 27% followed it fairly closely. The national news media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to the Vick story.
The controversy surrounding Barry Bonds’ baseball career as he comes close to breaking Hank Aaron’s career home run record hasn’t generated as much news coverage as the Vick allegations, nor is the public as interested in this story (12% followed this story very closely). News about a former NBA referee who is under investigation for betting on games including some he officiated has drawn the very close attention of 9% of the public, another 22% are following that story fairly closely.
Men are following the Vick story more closely than are women (26% vs. 17% very closely). The racial gap on this story is significant with 32% of blacks following very closely compared to 20% of whites. Young men are among the most interested in the Bonds story — 22% of men under age 50 are following the story very closely. Blacks and whites are about equally interested news about Bonds.
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, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 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.