Summary of Findings
While the press focused heavily on the political turmoil in Pakistan last week, the public was interested in other things. The three news stories the public followed most closely last week, rising oil prices, the Iraq war and the recall of Chinese-made toys, received relatively little press coverage. The public’s top story was the rising price of oil. Fully 44% followed this story very closely and 23% listed it as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. Only 3% of the overall newshole was devoted to this story. While oil and gas prices were featured somewhat more prominently in newspapers and on network television, this was not a top ten story on cable television news, radio news or online news sources.
The rising price of oil ranks among the top news stories of the year in terms of news interest. Only gas prices in May and the Virginia Tech shootings in April drew larger news audiences. Interest in oil prices is fairly consistent across major demographic groups, with a couple of exceptions. Older Americans (those ages 50 and older) are paying closer attention than younger Americans to this story, and men are following it somewhat more closely than women.
While the public is paying close attention to news about rising oil prices, a plurality believes that media coverage of the U.S. economy more generally is making things seem worse than they really are. More than four-in-ten Americans (42%) say news reports are making the U.S. economy seem worse than it really is. Only 17% say news reports are making the economy seem better than it really is, and 35% say reports are showing the situation about the way it really is. Republicans are among the most likely to say the media is painting an inaccurate picture of the economy. Six-in-ten Republicans say news reports make the economy seem worse than it really is. This compares with 41% of independents and only 31% of Democrats.
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 November 4-9 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected November 9-12 from a nationally representative sample of 1,017 adults.
Chinese Toy Recall Top Story for Women
The announcement that a popular children’s toy, Aqua Dots, was being recalled last week because it contained a dangerous chemical, attracted a large news audience. A third of the public paid very close attention to news about the recall and this and other Chinese-made toys last week, and 15% listed this as their most closely followed story. Public attention to last week’s recall was somewhat higher than in the summer when fewer than 30% were paying very close attention to safety issues relating to food and other products from China.
Interest was especially high among women and parents of small children. Fully 37% of women and 41% of those with children under the age of 6 living in their household paid very close attention to this story. Among women, 23% listed the toy recall story as their most closely followed news story, making it the number one story among women. Only 6% of men listed this as their most closely followed story. By far the top story among men was the rising price of oil.
Media and Public Differ on Pakistan Story
The recent political instability in Pakistan was the most heavily covered news story last week. Fully 17% of the national newshole was devoted to this story. In spite of the intense media coverage, the public paid relatively little attention to news about Pakistan. One-in-five followed the story very closely and another 29% paid fairly close attention. Roughly the same percentage followed last month’s bombing in Pakistan aimed at former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (21% very closely and 28% fairly closely). One-in-ten Americans (11%) listed the situation in Pakistan as their most closely followed news story making it the fifth most closely followed story of the week.
With the exception of the Iraq war, the situation in Pakistan received more weekly coverage than any other foreign story has this year. Several foreign stories have drawn large news audiences this year, but the current situation in Pakistan is not one of them. In fact it barely ranks in the top ten foreign stories of the year. The foreign news stories that the public has followed most closely this year have involved Iraq, Iran and terrorism.
Campaign Interest & Candidate Buzz
Public interest in the 2008 presidential campaign declined somewhat last week after reaching a high point during the first week of November. Two-in-ten Americans (21%) said they followed the campaign very closely last week and 13% said it was the story they followed most closely. The national news media devoted 15% of its coverage overall to the campaign with cable focusing most heavily on the story (25%).
The Democratic presidential candidates maintain a clear advantage over the Republican candidates for visibility in the press. When asked which candidate they have been hearing the most about in the news lately, the public named Democratic candidates over Republican candidates by a better than seven-to-one margin (71% vs. 10%). This Democratic advantage is driven mostly by the large number of people who said that Hillary Clinton was the candidate they have been hearing about most. More than six-in-ten Americans (61%) said that Clinton was the candidate they have heard the most about in the news recently. All other candidates received only a fraction of the number of mentions received by Clinton. Barack Obama, the next most visible candidate, was named by only 10% of the public, down from 20% in September. Former Senator John Edwards was named by less than 1%.
On the Republican side, no GOP candidate was named as the most visible presidential hopeful by more than 10% of the public. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani received the greatest number of mentions with 6%. Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee were each named by only 1% of public.
These findings are unique in that over the past six months the visibility of presidential candidates has been relatively stable. Since March, Senator Clinton has maintained a more than double digit lead over all other presidential hopefuls as the candidate people had heard the most about in the news. Then in July, Clinton’s visibility advantage grew somewhat approaching a two-to-one margin over Barack Obama. In the current poll, however, Clinton is by far the most visible candidate in the public eye. For the first time since Pew began asking this question in March, as many Republicans (65%) as Democrats (67%) named Clinton as the candidate they have heard the most about in the press.
Other Events in the News
Oprah Winfrey was in the news last week regarding the possible abuse of students by a staff member at a school she founded in South Africa. Close to one-in-four Americans (23%) said they heard a lot about the incident, half said they heard a little and another 27% said they heard nothing about it. About twice as many blacks (41%) as whites (22%) heard a lot about this story. More women (28%) than men (18%) heard a lot about possible abuse at Winfrey’s school for disadvantaged girls.
Roughly half of the public heard at least a little about a new study that suggests being overweight does not increase the risk of dying from diseases like cancer or hearth disease (16% said they heard a lot about this story, 35% heard a little). Close to half of the public (47%) said they heard nothing at all about the new research, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week.
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.