Summary of Findings

Americans tracked President Obama’s first European trip more closely than other major news stories last week and much more closely than George W. Bush’s first year international summit travels in 2001.

A quarter say they followed Obama’s trip and meetings with foreign leaders very closely, while 35% say they followed the trip fairly closely. In July 2001, just 6% followed Bush’s trip to the G-8 Summit in Italy very closely, while another 21% followed it fairly closely.

More than one-in-five (22%) cited Obama’s trip when asked which of six top stories they followed most closely last week. Still, the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted April 3-6 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, shows that economic troubles at home were not far behind: 17% say they followed reports about rising unemployment most closely and 13% say they followed reports about financial problems in the U.S. auto industry most closely.

Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say they followed news about Obama’s trip more closely than any other story (30% vs. 14%). By comparison, slightly more Republicans (11%) than Democrats (6%) say they most closely followed news about North Korea’s plans to test a long range missile.

Meanwhile, most people say they heard at least a little about Barack and Michelle Obama’s meeting with the Queen of England. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they heard a lot about the Buckingham Palace get-together, while another 38% say they had heard a little about the visit. Nearly half of women (49%) say they had heard a lot about the meeting with Queen Elizabeth, compared with 36% of men.

The Obama trip also proved to be the story that got the most media coverage last week. A separate content analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that news about the trip – which continued this week with stops in Turkey and Iraq – took up 21% of the newshole. Meanwhile, the domestic economic crisis made up 19% of news coverage, including 3% for the latest unemployment news. Separately, coverage of the troubles facing the U.S. auto industry accounted for 13% of coverage, according to PEJ.

In addition to asking which of the top stories people followed most closely, the survey also evaluates interest in those news stories by asking if respondents have been following them very closely, fairly closely, not too closely, or not at all closely. More than a third (36%) say they followed reports about rising unemployment very closely. In early March, following the release of a dismal federal jobs report, 42% said they were following the news very closely. Last week unemployment stories accounted for 3% of the newshole measured by PEJ.

The troubles facing the U.S. auto industry attracted similar interest, with 31% saying they followed those stories very closely. Interest in the auto industry’s problems was comparable in late February (33% very closely), when General Motors and Chrysler were seeking billions in federal loans to avoid bankruptcy.

On this scale, Obama’s trip measured similar levels of interest as the horrific shootings at an immigration services center in Binghamton, N.Y., last Friday. A quarter say they followed news of the trip very closely, compared with 26% for the New York killings that occurred the day the survey went into the field. The incident took place late in the week and took up 4% of the newshole.

North Korea’s testing of a long range missile was followed very closely by 23% of the public. That is similar to the share of the public that followed North Korea’s steps toward halting its nuclear weapons program last June (19% very closely). Only 8% say the missile test was the story they followed most closely last week. Also occurring late in the week, the missile test made up 2% of the newshole.

Some 15% say they followed news about the NCAA basketball tournament very closely. Just under one-in-ten (9%) say this was the story they followed most closely. The numbers are similar to those for last year’s tournament, when 13% said they followed the tournament very closely. Not surprisingly, men were considerably more likely to say they were following the tournament very closely (21%) than women (10%).

Tobacco Tax Hike Widely Heard about

News about the largest ever increase in federal taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products registered widely with the public. Fully 38% say they heard a lot about the tax hike taking effect. Another 42% heard a little about this, while 20% heard nothing at all.

The new federal tobacco tax was not as widely heard about as a 1998 dispute between the tobacco companies and the government over the advertising and sale of tobacco products. In June 1998, 72% reported hearing a lot about that debate.

A third say they heard a lot about the recent recall of pistachio nuts because of potential salmonella contamination, while another 47% say they heard a little about this. Like many other health and safety stories, a greater share of women (40%) than men (25%) heard a lot about the pistachio recall.

Few Americans (18%) heard a lot about the final episode of the long running NBC television drama, ER. One-in-three (33%) reported hearing a little about this, but close to half (49%) heard nothing at all about the ER finale. While the show’s last episode did not register widely with the public, about twice as many women (23%) as men (12%) said they had heard a lot about the hospital drama’s finale.

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 March 30-April 5, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected April 3-6, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,007 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 Monday through Sunday) 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