Summary of Findings

When Americans are asked to assess television news coverage of Barack Obama, Fox News Channel stands out from other networks for being too critical of the president. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) select Fox when asked which of six broadcast and cable news networks have been too critical of the new Democratic president, a far greater share than any other network.

In contrast, no one TV network is singled out for being too easy on Obama. Each of five networks (CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC and CBS) was named by about one in six respondents in this regard. Again, the Fox News Network stands apart – just 5% named Fox as being too easy on the president.

The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted April 17-20 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds a substantial partisan divide in views of how TV news networks cover Obama. More than four-in-ten Democrats (44%) say Fox has been too critical of Obama, compared with 25% of independents and just 18% of Republicans. No other network comes close to Fox, though 11% overall – including 18% of Democrats – say CNN has been too critical of the president. Very few Americans cite the broadcast networks – ABC (4%), NBC (4%) or CBS (3%) – as too critical.

In the survey, no one network is particularly identified as too easy on Obama. That is despite the view of many media watchers that, among the cable stations, MSNBC’s prime time lineup tilts to the left, while Fox’s leans conservative. Some 16% of Americans identify MSNBC as too easy on Obama, the same percentage that cites CNN. Among Republicans, one quarter (25%) says MSNBC is too easy on Obama; about as many say the same about CNN and each of the broadcast networks.

The impression that there is a pro-Obama bias to media coverage is widespread among Republicans – a majority identifies at least one network as being too easy on Obama, and a quarter feels that at least five of the six major networks – if not all of them – are too easy on Obama. This criticism is cast evenly across all networks except Fox News.

While many Americans see one or more networks as too critical or too easy on Obama, just more than half make no such distinctions. When it comes to being too critical, 53% either say that none of the networks is guilty, or offer no opinion. The same is true when it comes to whether any of the networks is too easy on Obama.

In a separate question on the media in general, the public sees coverage of the first months of the Obama administration as fair. Two thirds (66%) say the news organizations they follow are being fair to the new president, while 18% say they are being unfair. More than seven-in-ten (72%) Republicans say the coverage has been fair, compared with 66% of Democrats and 67% of independents.

Those who say they see the coverage as unfair – including 23% of Democrats, 16% of independents and 12% of Republicans – were asked to explain their answers. Among the common responses were that the media was expecting too much too quickly, that it was being too negative and critical and that Obama was getting blamed for steps taken by past administrations.

Interest in Pirates Remains High

Both Fox and MSNBC devoted significant airtime last week to “tea party” protests against Obama policies, taxes and government spending – with decidedly different takes on the events nationwide [See “Economy Shares Headlines with Pirates, Tea Parties and Waterboarding” released April 21, 2009], but the public paid much closer attention to stories about pirates off the coast of Somalia and the troubled U.S. economy.

About a third (34%) say they followed stories about the continued attempts by pirates to hijack ships more closely than any other story last week, while 27% say they followed stories about the U.S. economy most closely. More than half of the public (52%) says they followed economic news very closely, while about four-in-ten (41%) say they followed news about the pirates very closely.

In terms of coverage, a separate content analysis by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that stories about the economic crisis took up 18% of the newshole last week, stories about the pirates took up 16% and stories about the tea party protests took up 7%. The protest stories made up a significantly larger share – 14% – of the cable network newshole.

About one-in-ten (9%) say they followed the tea party protests more closely than any other story, while just more than a quarter (27%) say they followed the protests very closely.

The share of Republicans following the tea party story very closely (43%) was more than twice the share of Democrats (18%). About a quarter of independents (26%) say they followed the tea parties very closely.

Some 17% of Americans say they followed news about Obama’s travels to Mexico and Latin America last week very closely, while 6% say that was the story they followed most closely. PEJ reported this week that Obama’s trip to Mexico accounted for 3% of the newshole. The analysis did not include Obama’s second stop in Trinidad.

Two-in-ten say they followed news about Obama lifting certain restrictions on travel to Cuba; 3% say this was the story they followed most closely. Stories about Cuba, including changes in U.S. policies toward the island nation, made up 2% of the newshole.

A slightly smaller share (17%) say they very closely followed news about the release of Bush administration memos that detailed the harsh interrogation tactics the CIA was authorized to use to gather information following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks; 2% say they followed that story most closely last week and those stories took up 5% of the newshole.

California Murder Case Widely Known

News about charges against a Sunday school teacher in the murder of an 8-year-old California girl registered widely with the public last week. Fully half say they heard a lot about this and another 28% heard a little about the story. The woman charged in the murder, Melissa Huckaby, was among last week’s lead newsmakers, according to the PEJ analysis. News about the case and the allegations against Huckaby accounted for 1% of news.

The highly anticipated arrival of Bo, the Obama family dog, also registered widely last week. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they heard a lot about the new dog, while 42% say they heard a little. Just 14% had heard nothing at all about this. The media, meanwhile, devoted 1% of total news coverage last week to the new Obama dog.

A performance by a Scottish woman on the British reality show “Britain’s Got Talent” became an internet sensation and registered almost as widely with the American public as did the White House dog. Four-in-ten (40%) say that they heard a lot about Susan Boyle’s impressive voice and another 29% say they heard a little about her.

Just more than two-in-ten (21%) say they heard a lot about the announcement that veteran NFL commentator John Madden is retiring, while another 44% said that they had heard a little about this news. A third of the public (34%) says they heard nothing at all about Madden’s plans. News about his retirement made up 1% of the newshole.

Women were more likely than men to have heard a lot about the California murder case (54% of women vs. 46% of men). Women were also more likely than men to have heard a lot about the Obamas’ new dog (47% vs. 40%). Not surprisingly, a greater percentage of men (28%) than women (15%) heard a lot about Madden’s decision to retire from sports casting; 42% of women heard nothing at all about that news.

While video of Susan Boyle’s performance on “Britain’s Got Talent” was one of the largest YouTube hits of the year, the story did not grab the attention of younger Americans. Just 33% of those younger than 40 heard a lot about Boyle, while 46% had not heard about the story at all. By comparison, 45% of people 65 and older heard a lot about this story; just 24% had heard nothing about it. The California murder and the Obamas’ new dog show the same age pattern, with far more awareness among older than younger Americans.

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 April 13-19, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected April 17-20 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 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