Summary of Findings
The number of Americans who say they are hearing too much about President Obama has not increased since mid-summer, despite the president’s high media visibility. Still, 37% say they are hearing too much about Obama.
Since Labor Day, Obama has addressed a joint session of Congress about health care legislation, spoken to the nation’s school children and appeared on five Sunday news talk shows in one day. According to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted Sept. 18-21 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, a plurality (47%) say they are hearing the right amount about Obama and another 12% say they are hearing too little.
In the survey, which was in the field as Obama appeared on the Sunday talk shows on Sept. 20, Americans continue to say they are highly interested in the health care debate: 36% say it was the story they followed most closely last week, more than double the percentage for any other major story. But despite that interest, relatively few (19%) say they heard a lot last week about Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus unveiling details of his health care proposal.
The debate over health care reform got more media coverage than any other story, taking up 17% of the newshole analyzed by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That was down from 32% of coverage the previous week when Obama delivered his address to Congress. The president also continued to be the top newsmaker as measured by PEJ.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say they have been hearing too much about Obama. Close to six-in-ten Republicans (58%) say they have been hearing too much about the president, while 30% say they have been hearing the right amount and 9% say they have been hearing too little. Among Democrats, 20% say they have been hearing too much about the president, while 58% say they have been hearing the right amount; 17% say they have been hearing too little. Independents are more like the public as a whole: 40% say they have been hearing too much, 48% say they have been hearing the right amount and 9% say they have been hearing too little about Obama.
In late July, 66% of Republicans said they were hearing too much about Obama, compared with 25% of Democrats and 36% of independents. Just 23% of Republicans then said they were hearing the right amount, compared with 58% of Democrats and 51% of independents. Obama was also the dominant figure in the news at that point as he pushed lawmakers to act on health care legislation and made a controversial comment at a July 22 news conference about the arrest of prominent African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Most Know of Charges about Race Playing Role in Obama Criticism
Three-quarters of the public say they have heard either a lot (40%) or a little (35%) about charges that racism has been a factor in criticisms of President Obama and his policies. Awareness of these allegations registers equally across partisan groups: 41% of Republicans, 40% of Democrats and 41% of independents say they have heard a lot about claims that criticism of Obama has been driven by race. There is no significant difference between whites and blacks in terms of how many say they have heard a lot about this story line.
Other political stories of the week resonated less widely with the public. About three-in-ten (31%) say they heard a lot about employees of the community organizing group ACORN appearing to give advice to a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute. Somewhat fewer (23%) heard a lot about the Sept. 12 rally in Washington to protest government spending and policies. For both stories, Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to have heard a lot about them. Almost half of Republicans (47%) heard a lot about the ACORN scandal compared with only 21% of Democrats. Similarly, Republicans were about twice as likely as Democrats to have heard a lot about the Sept. 12th rally (31% Republicans, 16% Democrats).
The gap between Republicans and Democrats hearing a lot about the ACORN scandal is relatively large when compared with other recent stories. There also were sizable partisan differences in attentiveness to the recent resignation of White House adviser Van Jones, with more than twice as many Republicans (35%) as Democrats (15%) hearing a lot about this story. But the gap in attentiveness between Republicans and Democrats was more modest regarding health care protests at town hall meetings (15 points), claims that Barack Obama was not born in the United States (11 points) and reports that health care legislation included so-called “death panels” (nine points).
Democrats were somewhat more likely than Republicans to say they heard a lot about Obama’s back-to-school speech on education (by nine points) and Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie” at Obama during his health care speech before Congress (eight points).
Top Stories of the Week
For yet another week, health care remained at the top of the public’s news agenda with 36% naming it their top story and 44% saying they followed the debate over health care reform very closely. The story accounted for 17% of coverage.
Reports about the condition of the U.S. economy were also followed very closely by 44% of the public, though far fewer (15%) name it the one story they followed more closely than any other. Coverage of the economy took up 13% of the newshole measured by PEJ.
Interest in reports about swine flu and the availability of a vaccine was steady last week with 34% following the story very closely and 14% saying it was their top story of the week – roughly the same levels of interest as a week earlier. Swine flu stories made up 2% of coverage.
The murder of Yale graduate student Annie Le was followed very closely by about a quarter of the public (23%), while 12% say they followed this story more closely than any other. Interest was somewhat higher in the Northeast than it was in the West or Midwest. The murder – and arrest of a suspect – accounted for 7% of coverage.
Relatively modest attention was paid to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan (26% very closely, 6% top story) and to news about Obama cancelling a planned missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic (19% very closely, 4% top story). News out of Afghanistan accounted for about 4% of coverage last week, while planned changes to the missile defense system accounted for 3%.
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 September 14-20, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 18-21, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,001 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 landline 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.