Summary of Findings
Americans tracked news about the fast-moving swine flu virus more closely than any other story last week, with most turning to television for details on its spread. Still, when people were asked to name which information source was most useful, the largest share chose the internet.
The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted May 1-4 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that more people say they learned something about the flu from local television news (69%) or cable news channels (63%) than from the nightly network news (53%), the internet (49%) or newspapers (48%).
But the rankings change when people are asked which source has been most useful in learning about the global outbreak that started in Mexico. One quarter cite the internet, 19% name the cable news networks and 17% their local television news. About one-in-ten cite the nightly network newscasts or newspapers (9% each).
News about the spread of the H1N1 virus – and uncertainty about its potential danger – grabbed people’s attention in a busy news week that also included the bankruptcy filing by Chrysler, the 100th day of the Obama presidency and a party switch by veteran senator Arlen Specter. Still, close to four-in-ten (39%) say they followed news about the virus more closely than any other story.
Reporting about the swine flu also dominated news coverage. According to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, reporting on the virus accounted for 31% of the newshole examined. No other story came close.
With so much coverage focused on the location of the latest flu outbreaks and potential responses, such as school closings, solid majorities of all age groups, income levels and educational backgrounds say they learned something about the illness from local television news. With their frequent news updates, the cable news channels generally show similar, but slightly lower numbers.
Those who said they learned about the flu from newspapers are older. Close to two thirds of those 65 and older (64%) say they turned to a newspaper, compared with 51% of those between 40 and 64 and 37% of those younger than 40.
Those turning to the internet, meanwhile, are younger. Six-in-ten of those younger than 40 say they have learned about the flu from the internet, compared with 50% of those between 40 and 64 and 22% of those 65 and older.
Many See Internet as Most Useful Source
The internet tops the list (25%) when people are asked which source has been most useful. Close to four-in-ten (38%) of those younger than 40 cite the internet as that most useful source. Among those 40-64, the web is tied with the cable news networks (22%) and among those 65 and older, the most frequent choices are local television news (21%) and cable news (22%). Still, 15% of that group name the internet. The internet is the top choice – or tied for top choice – across income and education groups.
Broken down a different way, of the 49% who say they learned something about the swine flu from the internet, about half (51%) say the internet was their most useful source. Among the 69% who say they learned about the flu from local TV news, just 23% cite local TV news as the most useful source. For cable news viewers, the pattern is similar. Of the two thirds (65%) that say they learned about the flu from cable TV news, just 22% cite cable TV news as the most useful source.
Americans Moderately Worried
Meanwhile, Americans do not seem overly concerned that they or a family member will be exposed to the swine flu. Slightly more than a third (36%) say they are very worried (8%) or somewhat worried (28%) about exposure to the swine flu. Another 37% say they are not too worried and 27% say they are not worried at all.
In 2007, 44% said they were worried (12% very, 32% somewhat) that they or a family member could be exposed to a drug-resistant staph infection that was then in the news. About a third (32%) said they were not too worried and 23% said they were not worried at all.
Women are following swine flu news more closely than are men (48% very closely vs. 38%) and express greater worry (41% very/somewhat worried vs. 31%). And people in the South say they are more worried (45% very/somewhat worried) than people in the Northeast (32%), Midwest (30%) or West (30%).
Not surprisingly, those people who say they are very or somewhat worried about exposure to the flu are following the stories more closely than those less worried or not at all (59% vs. 34%).
Meanwhile, there is little difference in interest in news about the swine flu and concern about exposure to the illness among parents and non-parents, border state residents and non-border state residents, those with a college education and those without.
Rating Coverage of the Swine Flu
A majority of Americans give the press high marks for coverage of the swine flu virus. Overall, six-in-ten (62%) say the press is doing either an excellent (19%) or good job (43%) of reporting on the flu outbreak, while a little more than a third (35%) say that press coverage is only fair (21%) or poor (14%).
Some of the highest ratings of swine flu coverage come from those who express worry that they or someone in their family will be exposed to the flu. Among those who say they are very or somewhat worried about exposure to the swine flu, 74% say that the press is doing an excellent or good job. Among those who are less worried about flu exposure a smaller majority offer positive ratings of press coverage (56%).
Among those who say that local TV news has been most helpful in learning about the swine flu, 81% say that the press coverage is excellent or good. By contrast, among those who say that cable TV news is the most helpful source, a smaller majority (57%) call the coverage excellent or good.
Meanwhile, a sizeable minority say that the media has devoted too much attention to the outbreak. About as many say the press has devoted too much coverage to the swine flu as say the amount of coverage has been appropriate (42% vs. 46%). Just 9% of Americans say that the story has been undercovered by national news organizations. Fully half (50%) of those who are not too or not at all worried about flu exposure say that the story has received too much coverage, while a majority (56%) of those who are very or somewhat worried about getting the flu say that the level of coverage is about right.
Paying Close Attention to Swine Flu
More than four-in-ten Americans (43%) say they followed news about the swine flu very closely last week, placing it among the top ten “very closely” followed stories of the year thus far. Attention to the economic crisis and the presidential inauguration in January far exceeded attention to the new flu. News about the spread of the H1N1 virus attracted as much attention as the U.S. Airways flight that crash landed in the Hudson River in January and attacks by Somali Pirates off the coast of Africa last month. The media devoted 31% of its newshole to reporting on the flu’s spread, according to PEJ.
Swine flu is one of several infectious illnesses that have captured the American
public’s attention in recent years. Among the stories about deadly or fast-spreading viruses that have received significant media attention, only Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 attracted about as much public interest as the current outbreak.
While the swine flu dominated public interest last week, attentiveness to the economic crisis remained at about the same level it has for several weeks, with 47% following economic conditions very closely and one-in-five (22%) listing the economy as their top story of the week. Stories about the economy took up 10% of the newshole.
Ongoing financial problems for the U.S. auto industry, including Chrylser’s bankruptcy filing, attracted the very close attention of one-in-three Americans (32%) and was the most closely followed story of the week for 11%. The industry’s troubles received 8% of total news coverage for the week.
A quarter of the public says they followed news marking the first “100 days” of the Obama administration very closely, while 10% list this as the story they followed most closely. Not surprisingly, Democrats were more attentive to news about Obama’s first months in office than Republicans (37% very closely vs. 17%). Those stories took up 8% of the newshole.
The announcement by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter that he would leave the Republican Party and join the Democratic Party – putting Democrats close to a coveted 60-seat majority – received about as much coverage as Obama hitting the 100-day mark. The Specter stories took up 9% of the newshole. Two-in-ten (22%) followed Specter’s announcement very closely; 3% followed this news more closely than any other story. Republicans and Democrats were equally attentive to Specter’s party switch (27% each followed this very closely).
News that Supreme Court Justice David Souter will retire at the end of the current court term was followed very closely by 21% of the public; 3% listed the Supreme Court retirement as their most closely followed story. Here too, roughly a quarter of Democrats and Republicans followed this story very closely ( 25% vs. 23%). Stories about Souter’s announcement and speculation on his replacement took up 5% of the newshole.
Many Heard About New York Plane Scare
More than four-in-ten Americans (43%) say they heard a lot about a government plane flying over New York City for an Air Force One publicity photograph, a flight that briefly raised concerns about a possible terrorist attack. More than half (55%) of those in the Northeast reported hearing a lot about this story.
For the second week in a row, four-in-ten reported hearing a lot of news about the Massachusetts man suspected of robbing and killing women he met through the Craigslist web site.
About three-in-ten (29%) say they heard a lot about comments made by Vice President Joe Biden, saying he would advise his family to avoid traveling by air or subway because of concerns about swine flu. Republicans (34%) were slightly more likely than Democrats (28%) to have heard a lot about Biden’s comments.
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 April 27-May 3, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected May 1-4 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 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 Monday through Sunday) 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.