Summary of Findings
Interest in news about the U.S. economy skyrocketed last week, with 70% of Americans following economic developments very closely, up from 56% the previous week. Interest in economic news is broadly bipartisan with equal proportions of Republicans, Democrats and independents following news about current economic conditions very closely.
The public also paid close attention to the battle in Washington over a plan to use government funds to stabilize financial markets. That debate melded economic news with closely-followed presidential election coverage, as John McCain briefly suspended his campaign to return to Washington to play a role. As lawmakers and administration officials worked on an ill-fated compromise last weekend, 60% of the public was following developments very closely.
From a historical perspective, interest in news about the economic crisis, while not as high as interest in the Challenger disaster or 9/11, rivals interest in other major news stories of the past 20 years. With 70% of the public now following news about it very closely, the current economic crisis becomes one of the top ten most closely followed news stories in two decades of Pew Research Centernews interest surveys.
Interest in the current economic situation is considerably higher than the previous peak when the economy was struggling in the early 1990s. In February, 1993, 49% of the public was following reports about conditions in the U.S. economy very closely.
Views of McCain Becoming More Negative
The nation’s economic situation took center stage in the presidential campaign last week as McCain and Obama reacted to the crisis, attended a White House meeting on proposed legislation and addressed the subject in their first debate. A poll conducted Sept. 26-29 shows that opinions of the candidates continue to fluctuate. Majorities of the public say their opinions of both have changed in the past few days.
Views of Obama have become, on balance, more positive. Fully 31% say their opinion of the Democratic nominee has become more favorable in recent days, while 23% say their opinion has become less favorable. Views of Obama’s vice presidential running mate Joe Biden remain stable.
More than a third (35%) say their opinion of McCain has become less favorable in recent days, while only 24% say their opinion has become more favorable. The percentage of people saying their view of McCain has become less favorable in the past few days has increased in recent weeks. Just the opposite is true of Obama – the percentage saying their view of the Illinois senator has become more favorable recently has increased over the past two weeks.
Views of Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate, remain very much in flux, and the changing views of Palin are more negative than positive. Fully 38% say their opinion of the Alaska governor has become less favorable in recent days, while only 20% say their opinion of her has become more favorable. A much smaller percentage of Republicans say their view of Palin has become more favorable (45%) in recent days, compared with the previous week, when 64% said their impression had become more favorable in recent days.
Public Widely Aware of McCain’s Brief Campaign Suspension
The McCain campaign made headlines last week when the GOP nominee announced that he would suspend his campaign to focus on the economic crisis and called for postponement of the first debate. Fully 65% of the public heard a lot about McCain’s announcement, making it one of the most widely heard about events of the campaign.
Sarah Palin’s TV interview last week with Katie Couric of CBS news attracted considerable news coverage. Even so, only 31% of the public heard a lot about the interview. This is comparable to the percent who heard a lot about Palin’s first televised interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson. Another 37% heard a little about the Palin-Couric interview, and 32% heard nothing at all about it.
Even fewer heard a lot about Palin’s visit to New York City. Only a quarter (26%) heard a lot about Palin visiting the United Nations and meeting with several foreign leaders; 43% heard a little about this and 30% heard nothing at all.
VP Debate Highly Anticipated
The public is extremely interested in watching the upcoming vice presidential debate between Palin and Biden. Fully 64% say they are very likely to watch the debate. This is higher than the percentage who said they were very likely to watch last week’s presidential debate (58% of the public). Among registered voters, 69% say they are very likely to watch the debate. By comparison, in 2004 only 41% of voters said they were very likely to watch the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards.
Most voters (53%) think Biden will do a better job than Palin in the debate. Only 34% say Palin will put in the better performance. Democratic voters overwhelmingly say Biden will perform better (79%); most Republicans say Palin will prevail (64%). Independents choose Biden over Palin by a margin of 54%-32%.
A majority of Americans watched at least some of the first presidential debate, which took place last Friday. Roughly half of voters (49%) say, in covering the debate, news organizations treated both candidates equally. Most of those who saw an imbalance in the coverage say the media favored Obama. More than a third (35%) say news organizations have been more favorable to Obama in coverage of the debate, while only 7% say news organizations have been more favorable to McCain.
Republican voters are much more likely than Democratic voters to see bias in media coverage of the debate: 61% of GOP voters say the media coverage favored Obama, while 64% of Democrats say news organizations treated both candidates about equally.
When asked whether the coverage of the debate focused more on the qualities of the candidates or the candidates’ issue positions, most voters (55%) say the focus was on qualities. Only 30% say news organizations focused more on issues and policy plans. In 2004, voters made a similar assessment following the first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry: 56% said the press focused on the qualities of the candidates and 24% said the focus was on the issues.
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 were collected from September 22-28 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 26-29 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.
No Great Disparity in Visibility
For the past two weeks, Obama and McCain have been about equally visible from the public’s perspective. In the current survey, 42% say they have heard the most about Obama in the news in the last week or so, while 37% say McCain. This balance stands in stark contrast to the week of the GOP convention, when McCain was far more visible (54% vs. 28%). It is also quite different from the pre-convention period, when Obama was routinely the more visible of the candidates.
The balance of candidate visibility tracks with Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index which found that McCain was featured in 68%, and Obama in 60%, of campaign news stories last week.
Palin has faded somewhat from the public’s attention in the weeks leading up to the vice presidential debate on October 2. Fully 17% of Americans volunteered that Palin was the presidential candidate they were hearing the most about in the week following the Republican Convention. That slipped to 5% in the current survey. Fewer than 1% in any week since he was chosen to be Obama’s running mate have named Biden as the most visible candidate.
Surging Interest in Presidential Campaign
In the week leading up to the highly anticipated first presidential debate, public interest in news about the 2008 campaign reached a new high. Fully 56% of Americans say they followed news about the race very closely and, among registered voters, as many as 60% say they followed campaign news very closely. The election accounted for a third (33%) of the national newshole last week as measured by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, exceeded only by the financial crisis and debate about legislation to address that crisis. Attention to campaign news matched or exceeded the level of interest recorded in Pew’s final weekend presidential election polls in the last three presidential elections.
As has been the case throughout the campaign, Democrats are following election news more closely than Republicans and independents. Particularly during the late primary season and start of the general election, interest in the campaign was higher among Democrats than Republicans. In recent, post-convention surveys, Republicans and Democrats have both registered increasingly higher levels of interest in the campaign. Last week, 64% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans reported following the campaign very closely.
In Other News
Amid record interest in economic news, more than half (56%) of the public reported hearing a lot about the federal government’s decision to seize the failing lender Washington Mutual and sell it to banking giant JPMorgan Chase. A third of the public (32%) reported hearing a little about the Washington Mutual deal. Americans were roughly as familiar with this story as they were with news from the previous week that investment bank Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy. During that week, 59% said they heard a lot and 28% heard a little about the Lehman filing.
Half of all Americans say that they heard a lot and another four-in-ten (39%) heard a little about President Bush’s televised address last week on the need to stabilize financial markets quickly. As many people reported hearing about the president’s address as heard about the sale of investment bank Merrill Lynch to Bank of America the previous week.
In spite of the heavy focus on economic news, the public’s understanding of recent financial problems involving Wall Street investment banks and other companies with ties to the housing market does not seem to have improved. In the current survey, just 26% of the public say they understand these problems very well and about half (49%) say they understand them fairly well. These percentages are virtually unchanged from the previous week.
In news from abroad last week, reports about contaminated milk powder in China were followed very closely by 17% of the public; just 2% followed this story more closely than any other news. Similarly, a hotel bombing in Pakistan last week attracted very close attention from 16% of the public; just 1% cited this as their most closely followed story.
The visit to New York City by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the United Nations General Assembly was followed very closely by 13% of the public.
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.journalism.org.