Introduction and Summary

The public’s news habits have been largely unaffected by the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terrorism. Reported levels of reading, watching and listening to the news are not markedly different than in the spring of 2000. At best, a slightly larger percentage of the public is expressing general interest in international and national news, but there is no evidence its appetite for international news extends much beyond terrorism and the Middle East.

In the past few months, as many as four-in-ten Americans have paid very close attention to news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which exceeds previous levels of interest in this dispute dating back to the late 1980s. But other international news attracts no greater attention than in the past. Just 6% paid very close attention to the failed coup in Venezuela, and the same small number closely tracked the surprising showing of right-wing presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French election.

More Americans say they are generally interested in international news ­ the number who follow overseas developments very closely has grown from 14% to 21% over the past two years. But a solid majority of the public (61%) continues to track international news only when major developments occur, while far fewer (37%) are consistently engaged by international news coverage. By comparison, solid majorities keep up with national and local news (53%, 56% respectively) most of the time, not just when something important happens.

Moreover, almost all of the increased interest in international news has come among a narrow, highly-educated segment of the public ­ the same demographic groups that traditionally have dominated the audience for this coverage: affluent Americans, college graduates and older people. Those who are younger, less educated and have lower incomes are not significantly more interested in overseas news coverage than they have been in the past.

The survey offers powerful evidence that broad interest in international news is most inhibited by the public’s lack of background information in this area. Overall, roughly two-thirds (65%) of those with moderate or low interest in international news say they sometimes lose interest in these stories because they lack the background information to keep up. The poll finds fewer people explaining their lack of international news interest in terms of the repetitiveness of overseas news, its remoteness, or excessive coverage of wars and violence.

There are no signs in the new polling that the news interests and habits of young adults ­ those under age 35 ­ have been transformed by Sept. 11, as some had expected. They continue to register lower levels of news consumption than did previous generations at a comparable stage in the life cycle. And there is little indication that younger Baby Boomers have developed stronger news appetites, despite the extraordinary events of the past year.

However, given the fragmentation of modern news audiences, serious news outlets may benefit from the modest increase in interest in the international news observed in the survey. While only about one-in-six Americans are strongly committed to foreign news, they make up a disproportionate share of the audience for outlets such as the NewsHour, political and literary magazines, and to a lesser degree evening network and cable news (see pg. 22).

The Pew Research Center’s biennial news survey, conducted among 3,002 adults from April 26-May 12, finds that the two major trends shaping news consumption habits in the late 1990s have leveled off. First, the dramatic growth in online news consumption has ebbed, as increases in overall Internet penetration have slowed. The survey shows that 25% of Americans go online for news at least three times a week, compared with 23% in 2000. But the relative impact of online news remains substantial among those under age 30, where online news has a larger following than any other format except local TV news.

Second, the steady erosion of the regular audience for network evening news over the past decade has abated. Roughly one-third (32%) regularly watch one of the nightly network news broadcasts, compared with 30% in 2000. This is comparable to the overall cable news audience of 33%. Still, with the exception of CNBC, the viewership of major cable channels are up slightly since 2000, and the Fox News Channel’s audience rivals CNN (22% regularly watch Fox, 25% CNN).

In general, while the reach of cable news is relatively broad, its audience is less deep compared to network viewers. Though the same proportion consider themselves regular viewers of network and cable news, when the measure is narrowed to news viewing “yesterday,” network evening news holds a 30% to 25% margin. And the network margin over cable widens even more for people who spent half hour or more on the news, 62% of whom watched network news, 49% cable.

Yet the poll also underscores a fundamental problem facing broadcast news, particularly the network evening news programs. While these programs have lost audience across all age groups over the last 10 years, the young adults of a decade ago have not acquired the network news habit to the same extent as previous generations. As the chart above shows, since 1993 the biggest decline in network news viewership has come in the 35-49 age group.

A similar trend is evident in regular newspaper readership, which continues to inch downward. Just 41% of respondents say they read a paper the previous day, compared with 47% in 2000 and 48% in 1998. Since 1991 (see below), a large portion of this decline has occurred in the 35-49 age category. At the same time, it should be noted that older people have stuck with newspapers to a relatively greater degree than with network news.

By contrast, the age patterns of regular cable news viewership are less skewed. A nine-year analysis of the CNN audience shows the erosion of its audience has been fairly uniform across age groups (see below).

Clearly, these generational trends have not been diminished by the public’s heavy reliance on the news media for information in the days and weeks following Sept. 11, or by the strong interest in terrorism and the Middle East. In fact, the total amount of time people spend following the news on a daily basis has not rebounded from a dip that occurred in the late 1990s. In the current survey, respondents said they spent on average 15 minutes the previous day reading a newspaper, down from 19 minutes per day in 1994. Average daily TV news viewing remained at 28 minutes ­ the same level as in 2000 ­ but still significantly below the 38 minutes recorded in 1994. Time spent listening to radio news has not changed in recent years; on average, respondents report listening to radio news 16 minutes a day.

The 24-hour availability of news on cable and the Internet has enabled many Americans to set their own schedules for getting the news. About half (48%) describe themselves as news grazers -­ people who check in on news from time to time over the course of the day. Roughly the same proportion (49%) get the news more habitually, watching or listening at regular times. Compared to habituals, grazers are considerably younger, less interested in serious news, and use media sources at lower rates ­ except for cable and online news. Moreover, fewer grazers than habituals say they enjoy keeping up with the news, and this is true even allowing for the differences between the two groups in time spent on the news.

Other Findings

  • People are increasingly turning away from newspapers, but they have not given up on reading. Roughly a third said they spent time reading a book the previous day ­ no change since the mid-1990s. Americans under age 35 are more likely to read a book on a typical day than to read a newspaper.
  • The audience for the Fox News Channel is somewhat more conservative than for other TV news outlets, but not dramatically so. Nearly half of Fox viewers identify themselves as conservatives (46%), while 32% are moderates and 18% are liberals. The audience for CNN, Fox’s main rival, is more evenly split between conservatives and moderates (40%, 38%) and includes roughly the same proportion of liberals (16%).
  • The audience for Dateline, 20/20 and other network news magazines has declined sharply over the past decade. In the early 1990s, about half of the public said they regularly watched the news magazine programs. Now just a quarter (24%) regularly watch these shows.
  • Nearly two-thirds of those who go online (65%) come across news when they go on the Internet for other reasons. A significant minority of wired Americans are getting the news from email alerts ­ 31% of those who go online for news say they receive such alerts.
  • Mothers have trouble finding the time to follow the news. Fully six-in-ten (62%) say they wish they had more time for the news, more than fathers (52%) and women who do not have children at home (48%).
  • Senior citizens seem to be adjusting to the crowded media landscape. Two years ago, 41% of those 65 and over said they felt overloaded with information; that number has dropped to 31% in the current survey.
  • Americans remain avid consumers of new technology. The number of people with DVD players has nearly tripled since 2000 (16% to 44%), while the proportion who have a Palm Pilot or a similar device has doubled (5% to 11%).
  • Nearly half of Americans (48%) were able to identify Yasser Arafat as leader of the Palestinians. Almost as many (41%) knew that Israel was founded in 1948. But only three-in-ten (29%) identified Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. People who were born overseas know more about international affairs than those who were born in this country.