Summary of Findings

Americans last week followed the dramatic emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River as closely as they followed news about the nation’s number one problem: the troubled economy. One-in-four say the crash – which resulted in no fatalities and turned pilot Chesley Sullenberger into a national hero – was the story they followed most closely last week, while 23% say they followed economic developments most closely.

The crash and quick rescue of all passengers and crew from the river’s freezing water captured the very close attention of 44% of the public, according to the latest Pew Research Center weekly News Interest Index survey conducted Jan. 16-19. That compares with 43% who say they followed economic news very closely last week.

Among domestic airline and train accidents of recent years, only one attracted significantly greater public interest: the deadly crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of New York after a fuel tank exploded. Fully 69% of the public followed this story very closely in July 1996. Roughly the same percentage followed the recent US Airways story as followed the crash of American Airlines flight 587 near New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in November 2001 (48% followed news about this accident very closely). That crash resulted in more than 250 deaths.

The public also remains interested in news about the U.S. economy, though the percent of Americans following the financial crisis very closely has slipped considerably since its high in late September amid talk of an imminent global economic meltdown. About four-in-ten (43%) say they were following news about the economy very closely last week, which is little changed since early January (42%). In late September, 70% said they were tracking economic news very closely.

The current survey was conducted just prior to President Obama’s inauguration and just after the stunning Hudson River aircraft crash. But bad economic news was by no means the only major story breaking in early fall, either. The presidential election captured record high levels of interest during this period [See “Election Weekend News Interest Hits 20-Year High” released Nov. 6, 2008 and “Interest in Economic News Surges” released Oct. 1, 2008].

While the percent of Americans following economic news very closely has gotten smaller since September, the public remains highly concerned about the nation’s economic health and rising unemployment. Strengthening the economy and improving the job situation top the public’s list of priorities for 2009 [See “Economy, Jobs Trump All Other Policy Priorities In 2009” released Jan. 22, 2008].

The public also perceives a slight change in the tenor of the economic news. Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say they have heard mostly bad news about the economy in recent days. That is down from early December when eight-in-ten said they were hearing mostly bad news about economic conditions. The percentage saying that they are hearing a mix of good and bad news increased from 19% in December to three-in-ten now.

In both surveys, there was little partisan difference in these perceptions, with large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents saying they were hearing mostly bad news about the economy. The increase since December in the percent saying the economic news is a mix of good and bad can be seen among people of different parties, genders, ages, education levels and geographic regions. In December, those following the news less closely were more likely to see a mix of good and bad news than those following the news more closely. Now, there is little difference between the two groups.

Top Stories of the Week Attract Distinct Audiences

The public paid very close attention to several major news stories last week, dividing its time near equally between the emergency splashdown of US Airways flight 1549 and stories about the financial crisis. The debate in Washington over what to do about the ailing economy and news about cold winter weather across the nation also attracted considerable public interest. A third or more of Americans followed each of these stories very closely. Rounding out the major stories of the week, the survey finds that equal shares of the public followed news about presidential inauguration planning and the conflict in Gaza very closely (24% each).

The public’s most closely followed story of the week proved a virtual tie between news about the US Airways crash landing and news about the economic crisis, with each the choice of about one quarter of Americans. For more than one-in-ten, preparations for Obama’s inauguration (13%) or the conflict in Gaza (12%) was the top story of the week.

The story people were following most closely last week varied significantly by demographic characteristics and party identification. For example, more women (31%) than men (19%) list the US Airways crash as the story they followed most closely. For men, the economy and then the US Airways crash were the top stories of the week. A much larger percentage of young people (those 18-29 years of age) than older Americans cite the inaugural preparations as the story they followed more closely than any other: a quarter of young people vs. about one-in-ten (11%) older Americans list this as their top story. Not surprisingly, more Democrats than Republicans or independents say that the inauguration planning was their top story of the week. Republicans and independents were more likely to say that the economy or the US Airways crash was the story they followed more closely than any other.

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 coverage. 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, survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected January 16-19, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.

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 compiles this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey collects 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