Summary of Findings
Public interest in economic news remained high last week as 40% of Americans followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely. Nearly one-in-four Americans (23%) listed the economy as the single news story they were following more closely than any other, placing it second only to the presidential campaign.
In addition, Americans most often cite the economy as the single issue they have heard the most about recently from the presidential candidates. Three-in-ten (29%) name the economy as the issue they have heard the most about, while 23% name the Iraq war and 16% cite health care. Fewer people say they have heard the most about immigration (7%), the need for change (5%), taxes (4%) and race (2%). Terrorism is named by just 1% as the issue they are hearing the most about from the candidates.
Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say they are hearing the most about the economy (34% vs. 29%). Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely than Republicans to name health care (21% vs. 15%) and Iraq (28% vs. 23%).
Media Focuses Heavily on Campaign
Interest in economic news last week was nearly on par with interest in the presidential campaign — 37% of the public say they followed campaign news very closely last week, and 32% listed this as their most closely followed story.
However, there was far more news coverage devoted to the presidential campaign than to the economy. Last week the media devoted 7% of its overall coverage to economic news, while 51% of the coverage was devoted to the campaign. This was the highest level of campaign coverage recorded so far this year, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Campaign coverage was particularly dominant on cable news networks; fully 76% of the cable newshole was devoted to the campaign.
Most Say Candidates Treated Fairly
Majorities of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say news organizations have been fair in the way they have treated both Barack Obama (71% fair) and Hillary Clinton (53% fair). However, nearly a third (31%) say the press has been too tough on Clinton; just 8% believe the press has been too tough on Obama. Roughly equal numbers of Democrats say that the press has gone too easy on Obama (15%) and Clinton(12%).
There are smaller differences among Republicans in evaluations of press coverage of the leading GOP candidates. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, majorities say the press has been fair in the way it has covered Republican candidates John McCain (58%), Mitt Romney (56%) and Mike Huckabee (55%).
However, somewhat more Republicans say the press has been too easy on McCain than say that about the other candidates. About one-in-five (19%) say that the press has been too easy on McCain, compared with 12% who say the press has been too easy on Mitt Romney, and 11% who say the same about coverage of Mike Huckabee. Conversely, somewhat more Republicans believe press coverage of Romney and Huckabee has been too tough than say that of coverage of McCain.
Independent of how he has been portrayed in the media, John McCain received more press coverage than any of the other major candidates last week following his victory in the Florida primary. Close to four-in-ten campaign stories (37%) featured McCain as a significant or dominant newsmaker.
Kennedy Endorsement Widely Known
Nearly six-in-ten Americans were aware of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama — 59% named Kennedy as the long time senator who recently endorsed Obama. Though clearly aimed at Democratic voters, even more Republicans than Democrats knew about Kennedy’s endorsement (64% of Republicans and Republican-leaners vs. 57% of Democrats and Democratic-leaners).
Somewhat fewer Americans knew about California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s endorsement of McCain. Half the public correctly identified Schwarzenegger as the governor of a large state who had recently endorsed McCain. Republicans were more likely to know about this endorsement than were Democrats (56% vs. 48%).
Those who have been closely following news about the presidential campaign were much more well-informed than the general public about these recent endorsements. More than seven-in-ten (72%) of those who have been following the campaign very closely knew of the Kennedy endorsement and 59% knew about Schwarzenegger’s endorsement.
Record Low Interest in State of the Union Address
Very few Americans paid close attention to President Bush’s recent State of the Union address. Only 18% followed news about the speech very closely. Fully 65% said they either didn’t follow it too closely or didn’t follow it at all. The percent following the State of the Union is down significantly from last year when 25% paid very close attention. In 1992 when George H.W. Bush gave his final State of the Union address, 26% followed news about the speech very closely.
Interest in last week’s State of the Union address was relatively low among partisans as well. Only 27% of Republicans followed the speech very closely while nearly a third paid no attention at all. For its part, the national media devoted a significant amount of coverage to Bush’s address: 6% of the overall newshole focused on the State of the Union making it the third most heavily covered story after the campaign and the economy.
In other news, 28% of the public followed news about the Iraq war very closely (up slightly from 23% last week). Iraq was the most closely followed story for 13% of the public. The national media devoted 2% of its coverage to the war.
One-in-five Americans paid very close attention to the Super Bowl, and 10% listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. As is traditionally the case, men followed the game more closely than women (25% vs. 14% followed very closely). Interest was particularly high in the Northeast — 26% of Americans living in that region followed the Super Bowl very closely.
The public is paying very little attention to the ongoing violence and instability in Kenya. Only 8% followed news about Kenya very close. The media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to this story.
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 Jan. 28-Feb 3 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected Feb. 1-4 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.
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.