If the relationship between media coverage and events is uneven, what about coverage and public opinion? Are the media reflecting public concern about the economy, telling a story they know the public is interested in hearing? Or are the media manufacturing public concern, driving a crisis in consumer confidence, creating what a former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas called a “mental recession?” Or is the current economic crisis another example of how the media can reflect, reinforce, and then multiply the public’s concerns?

There are, of course, a number of factors other than news coverage that can influence public opinion on a subject like the economy, ranging from personal experience to the presidential candidates’ views on the issue. And looking over the crisis so far suggests a complex relationship between coverage and the public. It is neither a clear case of media reflecting nor manufacturing public worry, but there are evident correlations between increased coverage and growing public anxiety.

Survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press reveals that public interest in the economy—going back to 2007—has consistently been at a significantly higher level than the media coverage of the story. From August 2007 through the end of that year, for instance, about a quarter of Americans were paying very close attention the economy. That represents a fairly modest level of concern about that subject. Yet it still outstripped media interest. In that period, the economy and energy prices combined accounted for 4% of the newshole, making it the fifth largest news story.

The public’s attention to prices at the pump seemed even further out of sync with coverage. In November, fully 44% of Americans surveyed said they were following news about energy prices “very closely.” At the time, such stories accounted for just 1% of the newshole studied.

That gap between coverage and public concern continued into 2008, even as the media attention to the economy, and public interest in the subject, both grew. So far this year, the lowest that public interest in the economy ever dipped was to 36% of survey respondents following the story “very closely.” Coverage of the economy, by contrast, has filled 8% of the newshole studied in 2008.

There is similar gap in coverage vs. public interest in gas prices. In April, May and June, more than 60% of Americans said they were following news about the subject “very closely.” Yet the story accounted for 3% of the newshole studied.

Overall, Americans also tended to be more interested in the economy in 2008 than the presidential race, though not by a substantial margin. In the media agenda, campaign coverage overwhelmed economic news by nearly five to one.

It is hardly the case that the numbers for news coverage and public curiosity about the news should be identical. The space for news is a limited commodity, while anxiety is not. Still, those gaps in coverage reflect some of the largest discrepancies between press coverage and public attention to any topic.

What they do suggest, more clearly, is that the media were not manufacturing public attention in the economy. Nor, however, were the media entirely reflecting that interest. It existed, in some sense, independent of the coverage.

One example of when such gaps occurred came the week of April 28 through May 2. Barack Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, went on a media tour that included an appearance at the National Press Club, with the NAACP and with Bill Moyers on PBS. In the media that week, the campaign, driven by the Wright story, filled 37% of the newshole studied.

In the economy, crude oil reached $120 a barrel, stimulus checks began showing up in bank accounts, and federal statistics reported 20,000 jobs lost the previous month. The economy, in turn, was heavily covered, filling a sizable 13% of the coverage studied that week.

But even as the campaign generated three times the coverage that the economy did, public attention, as measured in surveys, tilted the other way. Fully 27% of Americans were paying very close attention to that campaign coverage that week, while 43% focused on the economy and 63% on gas prices.
So if it wasn’t public opinion, what was driving coverage of the economy? The biggest catalyst for media attention appeared to be external events—such as government reports, banking reports, official testimony. The media, on the story of the economy at least, have been more attuned to traditional institutional sources than to public opinion polls.