Introduction and Summary

For the first eight months of 2001, public interest in the news was modest at best. The rising price of gas and China’s release of a detained American air crew were the only stories to attract close attention from majorities of the public. Other big stories ­ President Bush’s first year, the slowing economy, even the saga of Rep. Gary Condit ­ drew much smaller news audiences.

Then came the events of Sept. 11, which riveted the nation’s attention and galvanized Americans’ interest in news. In mid-September, 74% said they were very closely following news about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (another 22% reported following the attacks fairly closely). By mid-October, the number paying very close attention increased slightly (to 78%), so that three weeks after Sept. 11, interest in news of the attacks was still greater than for such stories as the Los Angeles riots of 1992 (70%), the end of the Persian Gulf War (67%) and the Oklahoma City bombing (58%).

The change in news interest in the post-Sept. 11 period was striking. On average, just 23% of the public paid very close attention to the typical news story before the attacks, which is comparable to yearly averages since 1990. But after the attacks, that number more than doubled, to 48%.

For the year, eight of the top ten news stories relate to the attacks and the U.S. military response. Rising gas prices, which typically draw considerable interest and led the list of top stories in 2000, was the top non-terrorism story (61% following very closely), followed by the release of the crew of the U.S. spy plane (55%). Non-terrorist events that occurred after Sept. 11, such as the crash of an American Airlines jet near New York in November, were somewhat overshadowed by the intense focus on terrorism. While nearly half the public (48%) followed this story very closely, far more (69%) tracked the crash of a TWA jet off of New York in 1996.

Worries Fall, Mideast Interest Rises

The latest Pew Research Center survey, conducted Dec. 10-16, finds that 60% of Americans say they are still closely following news about the terrorist attacks. While that represents a gradual decline since September, interest is on par with the top pre-Sept. 11 story (gas prices, at 61%). Fewer people (44%) say they are closely tracking news of U.S. military action in Afghanistan, though there has been only a modest dropoff since mid-October (51%).

News interest in terrorism has decreased as the public has become less concerned over the prospects of new attacks on the United States. A narrow majority of Americans (52%) say they are very or somewhat worried over new terrorist attacks, down from 73% in early October.

In the new survey, 31% say they are closely tracking the violence between Israelis in Palestinians, up from 21% in early September (before the Sept. 11 attacks). Aside from news on the war in Afghanistan and the release of the U.S. crew in China ­ both of which directly involve Americans ­ the Middle East violence was the year’s top foreign story. The current level of interest is comparable to that in October 2000, when the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence and the terrorist attack on the USS Cole increased the public’s focus on the Middle East.

About four-in-ten (37%) said they paid very close attention to economic news in December, which is down slightly from November (41%). Other stories attracted far smaller audiences. Only about one-in-ten (11%) paid very close attention to reports on the bankruptcy of Enron Corp. And about the same number (10%) were very interested in reports on the death of former Beatle George Harrison.