Summary of Findings
O.J. Simpson’s recent arrest on robbery and assault charges was the most heavily covered news story last week. Yet public interest in the Simpson case was fairly modest. Overall, just 13% of Americans say they followed reports about Simpson’s arrest very closely, while 17% listed it as the single story they followed most closely. By contrast, there was much greater public interest in the situation in Iraq: 32% say they paid very close attention to the war, and 25% followed it more closely than any other story last week.
Simpson’s latest legal troubles drew somewhat more interest from blacks than whites. About a quarter of blacks (24%) cited Simpson’s arrest as the week’s top story, compared with 15% of whites. There was broad agreement among both blacks and whites, however, that Simpson’s case received too much press coverage though the coverage was fair.
A much larger racial gap emerged on another high profile news story: the demonstrations in Jena, Louisiana in support of six black teenagers involved in a schoolyard fight. The so-called Jena Six story was by far the biggest story of the week among African Americans. Fully half of blacks say they followed this story very closely, while 40% listed it as the story they followed most closely last week. By contrast, just 11% of whites followed the story very closely and 9% listed it as their top story. The national news media devoted 5% of its coverage to this story, which is less than half of the amount of coverage that news organizations devoted to the Simpson arrest (13%).
No Sympathy for O.J.
When asked about the main reason why many people are following the Simpson story, 66% of the public says it is because they want to see him finally convicted of a crime. Another 20% say people follow this story because they have an ongoing interest in news about Simpson. Just 3% believe that people follow the story because they sympathize with the former football star. Blacks and whites are largely in agreement on this question: 66% of whites and 63% of blacks say most people follow the Simpson story because they want to see him finally get convicted.
The news media receives divided marks for its coverage of the Simpson story. Six-in-ten Americans say the coverage has been fair, but about as many (62%) say the story has gotten too much press coverage.
About the same numbers of blacks and whites rate the coverage of Simpson’s arrest as fair, though somewhat more blacks view the coverage as unfair (32% vs. 17%). The racial gap was much larger in opinions about coverage of former quarterback Michael Vick’s recent legal problems. More than half of blacks (51%) thought Vick was treated unfairly by the media, compared with only 12% of whites.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans (62%) say the press overcovered the Simpson story, compared with 26% who view the amount of coverage as appropriate, and 5% who say it received too little coverage. The views of blacks and whites are nearly identical on this question.
Just 37% of the public say that they found the Simpson story interesting. On this measure blacks and whites have slightly different views. Slightly more than a third of whites (35%) view this story as interesting, compared with 51% of African Americans.
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 September 16-21 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected September 21-24 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.
The Week’s Top Newsmakers
Despite the modest interest in his case, O.J. Simpson tops the list of prominent names in the news for last week. When asked to name the person they have heard the most about in the news lately, 26% name Simpson. Blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to name Simpson. President Bush came in second place at 21%. On only one other occasion this year has someone other than Bush been the most visible newsmaker. In February, Anna Nicole Smith topped Bush by a significant margin shortly after her death (38% named Smith and 28% named Bush). Britney Spears came in third place on the list of top newsmakers last week (12%).
Iraq Tops News Interest
The Iraq war was the news story the public followed most closely last week. Nearly a third of the public (32%) followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely and 25% listed this as the story they followed most closely. The percentage of Americans following the war has remained remarkably steady throughout the year. The national news media devoted 10% of its overall coverage to events in Iraq last week and 5% to the Iraq policy debate.
Coverage of the Iraq policy debate declined sharply from the previous week when Gen. Petraeus’ report to Congress and Bush’s prime-time address made it the top news story. Public interest in the story remained unchanged from the previous week: 25% followed the Iraq policy debate very closely and 9% said this was the story they followed most closely.
Roughly a quarter of the public (24%) paid very close attention to news about the 2008 presidential campaign and 10% listed this as their top news story of the week. Democrats continued to follow campaign news more closely than Republicans. Coverage of the campaign comprised 9% of the national newshole, making it the third most heavily covered news story of the week.
There was relatively little public interest in President Bush’s nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general. Overall, just 9% say they paid very close attention to this story and 2% listed it as their most closely followed story. The national news media devoted 4% of coverage to the nomination.
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.