Summary of Findings

The bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed five people and raised concerns about infrastructure safety nationwide surpassed all other news stories last week both in public interest and media coverage. Nearly half (48%) say this was the story they followed most closely last week, far exceeding interest in Iraq, the week’s next most closely followed story (17% most closely).

Coverage of the bridge collapse accounted for 25% of the newshole during the week of July 29-Aug. 3, with much of the coverage focused on the death toll and rescue efforts, as well as the implications for the safety of other bridges across the country. Only three other stories this year have received more coverage in a single week: the Virginia Tech shootings (51%) and firing of radio host Don Imus (26%), both in April; and the Iraq policy debate in January (34%). Coverage of the bridge disaster was particularly intensive immediately after the collapse occurred. From Aug. 1, the day of the disaster, through Aug. 3, news organizations devoted 41% of all coverage to this story.

Overall, 41% said they followed the Minnesota tragedy very closely, making it the third most closely followed story of the year. In May, 52% paid very close attention to rising gas prices, and in April 45% followed the Virginia Tech shootings very closely. In January, President Bush’s announcement of the troop surge in Iraq drew about the same level of interest as the bridge collapse (40% very closely).

Among man-made disaster stories over the past decade, only two attracted greater public interest: the plane crash near New York’s John F. Kennedy airport in November 2001, and the death of 12 coal miners in a West Virginia mine last year.

High Marks for Bridge Coverage

The press gets positive ratings for its coverage of the Minneapolis bridge tragedy. More than three-quarters of the public say that news organizations have done an excellent (28%) or good (48%) job in covering this story. Just two-in-ten rated the coverage as either only fair (14%) or poor (6%).

In addition, most Americans feel that the amount of coverage devoted to the bridge was appropriate. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say the press gave the right amount of coverage to this story, while 23% say the bridge has been overcovered by the press. Only 8% say the story has received too little coverage. The public had a different reaction to the Virginia Tech shootings earlier in the year, when fully half (50%) said the press devoted too much coverage to the story, and 40% said the shootings had received the right amount of coverage.

Murdoch’s Dow Jones Deal

Last week Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp., finalized purchase of Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. The deal stirred intense interest among media insiders, but little attention among the public. Just 7% followed news of the purchase very closely, with another 17% following it fairly closely. More than half of the public (54%) said they were not following this story at all closely.

Interest in Rupert Murdoch’s purchase was higher among wealthier people than among those with lower household incomes. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) of those with household incomes of at least $75,000 a year followed news of the deal very or fairly closely, compared with 19% of those with lower incomes.

Most people who have followed Murdoch’s purchase of the Journal (60%) believe that the change in ownership will not make much difference in the quality of the newspaper. About one-in-five (19%) say that Murdoch’s ownership of the paper will make it worse while 11% say that the change will make it better. Among the core audience for the deal — those who followed the story very closely — more say that the Journal will get worse rather than better under Murdoch (by 33% to 18%). However, a plurality (42%) of those who have been tracking the story very closely expect the change in ownership will not make much difference.

There also are some partisan differences in views of the purchase. About a quarter of Democrats (27%) say that Rupert Murdoch will make the newspaper worse, compared with 6% of Republicans who express this opinion. It is important to note, however, that more than half of all Republicans, Democrats and independents do not think that Murdoch’s control of the Wall Street Journal will make much difference.

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 agenda. 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 was collected from July 29-Aug 3 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected Aug 3-6 from a nationally representative sample of 1,015 adults.

Iraq, Campaign ’08 and Other News

While the bridge collapse dominated public interest last week, attentiveness to the situation in Iraq remained at about the same level as it has during the summer, with 29% following war news very closely. About one-in-five (21%) paid very close attention to the Iraq policy debate while a similar number (19%) followed the 2008 presidential campaign very closely.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts suffered a seizure and was hospitalized early last week while vacationing at his summer home in Maine. After a night in the hospital Roberts, the Court’s youngest member, left the hospital fully recovered from the incident. The health scare for the Chief Justice received modest public interest last week: 10% followed the story very closely and just 1% said it was the story they followed most closely.

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 Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect 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 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