Summary of Findings
After months of bleak economic news, an increasing proportion of Americans now say they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, while fewer say they are hearing mostly bad news. As has been the case for the last few months, very few say they are hearing mostly good news about the economy.
Currently, 46% say they are now hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy; somewhat more (51%) say they are hearing mostly bad news. Just 2% say they are hearing mostly positive economic news.
In February, 37% said they were hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, while 60% said they heard mostly negative news. In December, just 19% said they were hearing mixed economic news while about four times as many (80%) said the news they were hearing was mostly bad.
In the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted March 13-16 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of Democrats who say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy. Currently, 55% of Democrats say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news, up from 41% in February. The shift has been less pronounced among Republicans and independents.
The public continues to pay attention to economic and financial news, including last week’s big rise in the stock market. More than a quarter of Americans (27%) say they followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy more closely than any other story last week. Another 17% say they followed changes in the stock markets most closely, making those stories the two most closely followed of the week. Meanwhile, reporting about the economy took up 33% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). (Including stock market-related stories, economic coverage totaled 35% of all coverage.)
In terms of more general interest stories, more Americans (33%) say they have heard a lot about the troubled relationship between pop singers Chris Brown and Rihanna than have heard a lot about the dispute between television’s Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer (17%), the controversy surrounding Republican Chairman Michael Steele (14%) or news about Bristol Palin and her boyfriend calling off their engagement (13%).
Democrats See Less Bad News
With their party now controlling the agenda in Washington, Democrats are more likely than Republicans or independents to report hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy. This reflects a shift in opinions from before Barack Obama took office, when there were no significant partisan differences on this question.
Today, more than half of Democrats (55%) say they are hearing mixed news about the economy, compared with 33% of Republicans and 44% of independents. In December, just 17% of Democrats said they were hearing mixed news, compared with 19% of Republicans and 22% of independents.
The share of Democrats hearing mostly bad news has dropped considerably from 82% in December to 42%. Republicans and independents show significant but smaller drops – from 80% to 65% for Republicans and from 76% to 52% for independents.
People with family incomes of $75,000 or more also are much more likely to see economic news as mixed than they were last month. They now hold similar opinions about the tone of economic news as those earning between $30,000 and $74,999. Today, more than four-in-ten (42%) of those with household incomes of $75,000 or more say they see a mix of good and bad economic news, compared with 25% who said this in February. There has been less change among families earning between $30,000 and $74,999 (43% now vs. 37% in February) and those earning less than $30,000 (51% now vs. 50% in February).
Most Have Heard about Pop Stars’ Troubles
Most of the public reports that they have heard about the troubled relationship between singers Chris Brown and Rihanna, with a third saying they have heard a lot. That is far more than the proportions saying they heard a lot about the dispute between Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and CNBC’s Jim Cramer (17%), controversial comments made by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (14%), or Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter Bristol and her boyfriend calling off their engagement (13%).
Brown and Rihanna’s relationship became major news in early February when Brown allegedly assaulted Rihanna early in the morning before the Grammy Awards. Since then, entertainment and news media have covered the story; Oprah Winfrey discussed the situation in the context of domestic violence on her talk show. Far more women (40%) than men (26%) say they have heard a lot about the alleged assault. This story also registered much more with African Americans (63% heard a lot) than whites (28%). Four-in-ten of those younger than 40 heard a lot about the Brown-Rihanna story, compared with just 21% of those 65 and older.
By contrast, just 17% say they have heard a lot about the dispute between The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Mad Money’s Jim Cramer. Over several episodes of The Daily Show, Stewart criticized how Cramer and his colleagues at CNBC covered financial institutions and the stock market. Cramer appeared on Stewart’s program on March 12 for an at times tense confrontation, but more than half of Americans (55%) say they had heard nothing at all about this story. Democrats were more likely to have heard a lot about this story (23%) than either Republicans (14%) or independents (16%).
Republicans and Democrats were equally aware of the controversy surrounding Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman. In recent interviews, Steele had criticized conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and made comments about abortion and gay marriage that angered some within his own party. Just 14% of Americans heard a lot about this story, including 16% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats. One-in-ten independents heard a lot about the story. More than half of the public (54%) had heard nothing about the Steele story.
The news that teen mother Bristol Palin and her boyfriend, Levi Johnston, had decided to end their engagement did not appear on most people’s news radar. Just 13% said they had heard a lot about the breakup. There was little difference among partisans (16% of Democrats a lot vs. 11% of Republicans) and no significant differences by age or gender. Far more people (69%) had heard a lot about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy at the time of the 2008 Republican convention.
Economy Tops Public Interest
Close to half of the public (48%) says they followed news about conditions of the U.S. economy very closely last week, while a third (33%) says they followed this news fairly closely. The economy was the story followed most closely by 27% of the public; reports on the economy (including the stock market) accounted for 35% of the total newshole, according to PEJ.
Almost four-in-ten (38%) say they followed stock market reports very closely, while 31% say they followed those reports fairly closely. For 17%, this was the story they followed most closely. Stock market fluctuations considered separately made up 2% of the newshole analyzed by PEJ.
Obama’s decision to reverse Bush administration limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was followed very closely by 31% and fairly closely by another 30%. The issue garnered about as much attention as when President Bush announced the plan to limit funding for the research in 2001 (31% followed very closely and 34% fairly closely). This was the most closely followed story of the week for 15% of the public and took up 5% of the newshole.
More than a quarter (27%) say they followed news about Bernard Madoff’s guilty plea to charges he cheated investors of billions of dollars very closely. Another 33% followed that story fairly closely, while 10% said it was the story they followed most closely last week. Reporting on the Madoff story accounted for 7% of the total newshole.
Fewer than two-in-ten (18%) followed stories about a shooting spree in Alabama that left 11 dead very closely; 33% say they followed that story fairly closely. This was the story followed most closely by 8%. It made up 3% of the newshole.
Stories about political instability in Pakistan attracted less attention, with 14% saying they followed those stories very closely and 20% saying they followed them fairly closely. This was the top story for 3%. It accounted for only 1% of the coverage, as measured by PEJ.
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 coverage. 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 March 9-15, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 13-16, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,000 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 compiles this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey collects 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.