Summary of Findings
The Fox News Channel is viewed by Americans in more ideological terms than other television news networks. And while the public is evenly divided in its view of hosts of cable news programs having strong political opinions, more Fox News viewers see this as a good thing than as a bad thing.
Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they think of Fox News as “mostly conservative,” 14% say it is “mostly liberal,” and 24% say it is “neither in particular.” Opinion about the ideological orientation of other TV news outlets is more mixed: while many view CNN and the three broadcast networks as mostly liberal, about the same percentages say they are neither in particular. However, somewhat more say MSNBC is mostly liberal than say it is neither in particular, by 36% to 27%.
The perceptions of those who regularly tune into these news networks are similar to those of the public. Nearly half (48%) of regular Fox viewers say the network is mostly conservative. About four-in-ten (41%) regular viewers of CNN describe the network as mostly liberal and 36% of regular MSNBC viewers say the same about that network.
The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted October 23-26 among 1,001 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, also shows that Americans followed news about the spread of the swine flu and the availability of a vaccine more closely than any other major news story last week. And the percentage of Americans saying they followed swine flu news very closely (43%) now matches the highest levels of interest reached during the previous flu outbreak in May.
The survey also finds the public is evenly split in its view of cable news hosts “having strong opinions about politics.” About four-in-ten (42%) see this as a good thing while an identical percentage sees it as a bad thing. By 51% to 36%, regular Fox News viewers view cable hosts with strong political opinions as a good thing; regular viewers of other TV news outlets are more evenly divided over opinionated cable news hosts.
More Fox Viewers See Other Networks as Liberal
The perception of Fox News as mostly conservative is shared equally by regular Fox News viewers and regular viewers of other TV news networks. Half of regular CNN viewers see the Fox News Channel as mostly conservative, as do 48% its own viewers, 48% of regular MSNBC viewers and 45% of the regular viewers of national nightly network news on ABC, NBC and CBS.
By contrast, regular Fox News viewers are more likely than those who tune into other news networks to see those networks as mostly liberal. For instance, 50% of regular Fox News viewers say NBC News is mostly liberal, compared with only about third of regular viewers of CNN (35%), MSNBC (31%) and the nightly network news (34%). There are comparable differences between how Fox News viewers and other news audiences see the ideologies of CBS News and ABC News.
Nearly half of Fox News viewers also say that CNN (49%) and MSNBC (47%) are mostly liberal. However, nearly as many CNN viewers (41%) say that network is mostly liberal; similarly, 43% of regular MSNBC viewers say that network is mostly liberal.
Views of the networks’ ideologies also differ greatly by personal ideology. More than half of liberals (57%) say Fox News is mostly conservative, compared with 46% of moderates and 44% of conservatives.
By contrast, 48% of conservatives say that MSNBC is mostly liberal, compared with 31% of moderates and 29% of liberals. These are similar to views of CNN: 51% of conservatives say the network is mostly liberal, while 33% of moderates and 28% of liberals agree. There are comparable ideological differences in perceptions of the ideologies of NBC News, ABC News and CBS News.
Divided Over Opinionated Cable Hosts
The public is split over whether it is a good thing or bad thing for hosts of cable news shows to have strong opinions about politics; 42% see this as a good thing while as many see it as a bad thing. In July 2003, 47% said it was a good thing for hosts to have strong political opinions, while 40% saw it as a bad thing.
Just over half of regular Fox News viewers (51%) say it is a good thing, while 36% say it is a bad thing. Opinions are more evenly divided among regular viewers of the other cable news channels and network news, as well as regular newspaper readers and online news users.
Views of Obama Coverage
There has been a steady decline since early this year in the proportion saying the press has been fair in the way it has covered Barack Obama. Currently, 37% see coverage of Obama as fair, down from 43% in August and 64% in January, shortly after Obama’s inauguration.
Over the same period, increasing percentages say Obama coverage is not critical enough and too critical. Currently, 31% say Obama coverage is not critical enough (up from 18% in late January) and 26% say it is too critical (12% in late January).
Fully 60% of Republicans say the press is not critical enough of Obama, while nearly as many Democrats see coverage of Obama as too critical (41%) as fair (44%). Among political independents, about as many say the coverage has been fair (38%) as not critical enough (35%).
Among regular viewers of Fox News, 45% say the press has not been critical enough of Obama, compared with 15% of regular MSNBC viewers, 23% of regular CNN viewers and 21% of regular nightly network news viewers.
Most Continue to Expect Health Care Bill to Pass
More than half (53%) of Americans say they think a health care reform bill will pass over the next year, while 40% say they do not think that will happen. That is little changed from last week, when 57% said they thought health care legislation would pass, while 38% said they did not. In a survey conducted Oct. 9-12, 45% said they thought a bill would pass over the next year; 46% thought it would not.
Meanwhile, 66% say they have seen or heard advertisements about the health care debate, which is about the same as in early September (63%). While 23% say they have heard a mostly negative message about health care reform, comparable percentages volunteer that they have heard a mix of positive and negative messages (23%) while 18% say they have heard mostly positive messages about health care reform. These assessments also have changed only modestly since early September.
Off-Course Flight Registers Widely
About three-quarters of the public heard either a lot (44%) or a little (30%) about a Northwest Airlines flight that flew 150 miles past its destination last week before turning around.
By comparison, 30% say they heard a lot and 24% say they heard a little about Obama administration officials saying that the Fox News Channel is not really a news organization. Nearly half (46%) say they heard nothing at all about the dispute, even though coverage of this issue that accounted for 5% of the newshole, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).
However, 46% of regular Fox News viewers heard a lot about the Obama administration’s criticisms of Fox News. That compares with smaller proportions of regular MSNBC viewers (34%), CNN viewers (32%) and network news viewers (26%).
Just 19% of the public heard a lot about the Justice Department announcing it will not pursue cases against people who use medical marijuana if state laws allow it, while 46% heard a little about this. Slightly more than a third (36%) say they heard nothing about this story.
The Week’s Other News
For the first time this fall, news about swine flu and the vaccine ranked atop the public’s news agenda. About a third (32%) followed news about the swine flu more closely than any other story. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they paid very close attention to the story, matching a high reached in early May 2009. For the week, interest was strong despite modest media coverage; swine flu filled 5% of the newshole and trailed coverage of other leading stories, including the economy, Afghanistan, and the debate over health care reform.
Second to the news about swine flu, the health care reform debate was the top story for 27% of the public; 40% followed news about the debate very closely. Coverage accounted for 10% of the national newshole.
Reports about the condition of the U.S. economy was the top story for 15% of the public, while 44% say they followed economic news very closely. News about the economy made up 10% of the newshole. Another 6% of coverage was devoted to issues surrounding executive pay and attempts to regulate it. Almost one third of Americans (32%) say they followed this story very closely; it was the top story for 4%.
News about the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan was the most closely followed story of the week for 9% of the public. Close to a third (32%) say they followed Afghanistan news very closely – one of the few times this year that very close interest has topped 30%. The media devoted 13% of coverage to Afghanistan, according to PEJ.
Fewer tuned into news about political instability in Pakistan. Just 1% named this their top story, while 17% say they followed news about Pakistan very closely. Coverage made up 2% of the newshole.
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 October 19-12, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected October 23-26, 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.