Summary of Findings

The California wildfires overshadowed all other news stories last week both in terms of public interest and news coverage. Four-in-ten Americans followed news about the fires very closely, making it the fourth most closely followed news story of the year. The only stories that have attracted a larger audience this year were rising gas prices in May, the Virginia Tech shootings in April, and the Minnesota bridge collapse in August. Nearly half of the public (46%) listed the California fires as the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week.

Large scale natural disasters, when they occur on American soil, tend to attract a large news audience. Interest in last week’s California fires does not come close to the level of interest for Hurricane Katrina (73% followed that story very closely), the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, or Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It is more comparable to past California fires — slightly below the level of interest in the 1993 fires and slightly higher than in the fires of 2003.

Comprising 38% of the national newshole, the wildfires became the second most heavily covered news story of 2007. Only the Virginia Tech shootings surpassed the fires in terms of overall news coverage. The fires were covered more intensely on television news outlets than on other sectors — 53% of network TV news and 51% of cable news was devoted to the story.

The government — state, local and federal — receives high marks from the public for its response to the fires. Reactions to the government’s response stand in stark contrast to the dismal ratings the government received in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Fully three-quarters of the public (76%) give the state and local governments in California excellent or good ratings for their response to the fires. Only 16% give the local and state governments fair or poor marks. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, only 41% of the public gave the local and state governments in Louisiana and Mississippi excellent or good ratings, 51% rated them fair or poor.

Similarly, impressions of the federal government’s response to the California disaster are much more positive than the ratings it received for its handling of Katrina. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say the federal government has been doing an excellent or good job responding to the wildfires.

Roughly a third (34%) rate the federal government’s efforts only fair or poor. Following Katrina, only 38% gave the federal government excellent or good marks, 58% graded the response efforts fair or poor.

There is a significant partisan gap in evaluations of the government response to the fires — particularly at the federal level. Fully 75% of Republicans give the federal government an excellent or good rating compared with 52% of Democrats. The gap was even larger after Katrina when Democrats were especially critical of the Bush administration’s response to the disaster. In September 2005, 63% of Republicans gave the federal government an excellent or good rating compared with only 22% of Democrats. At that time, fully 40% of Democrats said the federal government was doing a poor job responding to the Hurricane.

Media Gets High Marks for Coverage

The news media get high ratings for their coverage of the fires. Fully 78% say the press has done an excellent or good job covering the wildfires, 17% rate the coverage fair or poor. A majority of the public (62%) says news organizations have given the right amount of coverage to the story; 25% say the story has been overcovered; while just 9% say it has received too little coverage.

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 October 21-26 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected October 26-29 from a nationally representative sample of 1,035 adults.

The Week’s Other Top Stories

In other news last week, 28% of the public followed the situation in Iraq very closely, unchanged from the previous week. Only 12% listed the Iraq war as their most closely followed story of the week as most attention was focused on the California wildfires.

One-in-five Americans followed the World Series very closely and 10% listed this as their most closely followed story. The national media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to the World Series.

News coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign remained substantial — 9% of the national newshole focused on the campaign. Roughly one-in-five Americans (21%) followed campaign news very closely and 9% listed this as their most closely followed story.

The public continues to express modest interest in U.S.-Iranian relations. Roughly a quarter (26%) followed news about mounting tensions between the U.S. and Iran last week, as the Bush administration imposed new sanctions on the Iranians, 5% listed this as their most closely followed story.

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