Summary of Findings

As the contentious debate over President Obama’s $800 billion economic stimulus plan played out in Congress over the past week, more Americans were hearing bad things than good things about the legislation.

Close to half (48%) of the public says that what they were reading and hearing about the plan in the news was “mostly negative,” while about three-in-ten (29%) say what they read and heard was “mostly positive.” Some 17% say they saw a mix of both, according to the Pew Research Center’s weekly News Interest Index survey conducted Feb. 6-9.

The public followed the debate more closely than any other story last week by a wide margin amid continuing news of major job losses and stern warnings from Obama about the severity of the crisis. Some 47% say the stimulus debate was the story they followed most closely, while 16% say they followed reports about rising unemployment most closely. One-in-ten say they followed stories about a California mother giving birth to octuplets most closely.

Meanwhile, the weekly News Coverage Index by the research center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that the economic crisis and Obama’s bid to win Republican support for the stimulus legislation dominated the news last week, filling 44% of the newshole. The story is still generating significant coverage as lawmakers work to send a final bill to Obama quickly.

While people are hearing more negative than positive news about the stimulus plan, there are no signs that this is having a negative impact on impressions of Barack Obama. Six-in-ten Americans say their opinion of Obama has not changed in recent weeks. Close to one quarter (23%) say their opinion has become more favorable, while only 16% say their opinion has become less favorable.

These findings comport with a separate Pew Research Center for the People & the Press report released this week showing growing opposition to the stimulus plan since January, combined with overwhelmingly positive ratings of Barack Obama. [See “Support for Stimulus Slips, But Obama Rides High”released Monday, February 9, 2009.]

Many Americans say they want more information about specifics of the stimulus proposals. Half of the public says there has been “too little coverage” of exactly what is included in the stimulus plan. Still, close to four-in-ten (37%) say those details have gotten “the right amount of coverage;” only 8% say the details have gotten “too much coverage.” When it comes to the congressional debate over the legislation, just more than half (54%) say there has been the right amount of coverage, while about a third (34%) say there has been “too little coverage” and 8% say there has been too much.

Tabloid News: Phelps & Octuplets Over-Covered

By contrast, most Americans say the press went too far in coverage of Michael Phelps and the California woman who gave birth to octuplets. Two-thirds (67%) say that Phelps received “too much coverage,” one-in-five (22%) say he received the “right amount of coverage” and just 5% say the Phelps story got “too little coverage.” The public feels much the same way about the octuplets story. A solid majority (62%) say that this story received too much attention from the press and only 5% believe the story was under-covered. That said, three-in-ten thought that the octuplets received the right amount of media attention.

Despite this criticism, the controversial story about a California mother of six who gave birth to octuplets after receiving fertility treatments got fairly broad attention from the public and the media last week. About one-in-four (23%) followed this news very closely, and another 33% say they followed this news fairly closely. For 10% of Americans the octuplets birth was the top story of the week, nearly as many as the 16% who named news about job losses as their most closely followed story. According to the analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the octuplets story accounted for 2% of total news last week.

While most agree that the octuplets story has been over-covered, news about the mother and her 14 children has a distinct audience. Women – particularly older women – reported following the octuplets story more closely than other respondents. More than a third (37%) of women over 50 reported following this news very closely compared with 24% of men over 50, and fewer young women (17%) or young men (15%). But there is no similar distinction in terms of the level of coverage. Women and men, whether under 50 or over 50, agree that the octuplets have received too much coverage (roughly six-in-ten of each group).

The star of last summer’s U.S. Olympic team, Michael Phelps, attracted negative publicity last week when a British newspaper printed a photo of the champion swimmer allegedly smoking marijuana. Roughly two-in-ten (17%) followed this story very closely last week and another 27% followed it fairly closely. For just 5% of the public, the photo controversy was the most closely followed story of the week. The media, for its part, devoted 1% of all news to the Phelps story, according the PEJ’s content analysis.

Compared with other recent sports scandals, the Phelps story is in the middle of the pack in terms of public interest. News about Phelps using marijuana attracted somewhat less interest than the first reports about former NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s involvement with an illegal dog fighting operation in July, 2007 (21% followed Vick’s troubles very closely). More followed this week’s Phelps story very closely than previous years’ stories about baseball stars Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds alleged use of performance enhancing drugs or the NBA referee who bet on professional basketball games.

Though the Phelps’ story touched off media debate about his status as a role model for children, adults living with children under the age of 18 were no more likely than those without children in the home to have followed the story very closely (15% vs. 18%, respectively).

The public’s reaction to the volume of coverage allotted Phelps and the California octuplets is comparable to other recent controversies. In the summer of 2007 about half said there had been too much coverage of Michael Vick’s involvement with illegal dog fighting, and slightly fewer than half felt the same about coverage of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s participation in a prostitution ring in March of 2008. In the case of racist remarks by radio host Don Imus in April, 2007 about six-in-ten said that there was too much coverage. In July, 2007 close to nine-in-ten (87%) Americans said that the press devoted too much attention to “a number of scandals involving such celebrities as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.”

Partisan Takes on Stimulus Coverage

About half of Republicans (49%), Democrats (48%) and independents (48%) say the debate in Congress over the stimulus was the story they followed most closely last week, but partisans differ in how they see the tone of the coverage. Republicans (55%) and independents (53%) are more
likely to say what they’ve read and heard about the stimulus plan has been “mostly negative,” compared with 43% of Democrats who saw coverage that way. Democrats are more likely to say what they’ve heard has been “mostly positive” (38%), compared with 26% of Republicans and 21% of independents.

While partisans do not differ greatly in their judgment of the amount of media coverage given to the package, Republicans and independents are a bit more critical of the press than Democrats for not paying enough attention to the plan’s details. Slim majorities of both Republicans (53%) and independents (56%) say there has been too little coverage of what is included in the economic stimulus plan, compared with 46% of Democrats.

In Other News…

Former Sen. Tom Daschle’s decision to withdraw from consideration to be President Obama’s secretary for health and human services over a tax controversy attracted the very close interest of one-in-four Americans. For 5% of the public, this was their top story of the week.

The elections in Iraq received considerably less interest from the American public than the first time Iraqis went to the polls in February, 2005. Just 7% say they followed the Iraqi elections very closely last week, while a 40% plurality say they did not follow these elections closely at all. That compares with a significantly greater percentage – 27% – that followed the Iraqi elections very closely in early 2005. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s content analysis, just 2% of news coverage was devoted to the Iraqi elections last week.

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, data relating to news coverage were collected from February 2-8, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected February 6-9, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 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