A growing awareness of bad news about gas prices has, at least for now, reversed Americans’ more positive perceptions of economic news in recent months.

Nearly four-in-ten (38%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy, up from 29% in February, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted March 3-6 among 1,006 adults. Just more than half (53%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, down from 64% in February. Relatively small numbers each month report hearing mostly good news about the economy (6% in February, 7% in March).

Concern about prices –especially gas prices – appears to be a key factor in the more negative perceptions. Nine-in-ten (90%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about gas prices, up from an already high 77% in February. About six-in-ten (62%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about food and consumer prices in general. That’s up from 49% one month ago.

On the other hand, public perceptions of news about the job situation are largely unchanged from last month, despite the March 4 release of a federal jobs report that showed significant job gains in February. Half (50%) say they have been hearing mostly bad news about the job situation, about the same as the 52% that said this in February.

Those surveyed after the release of the federal unemployment report were less negative about job news than those surveyed just before its release; 47% of those surveyed March 4-6 say they are hearing mostly bad news about the jobs situation, while 55% of those contacted on March 3 – the day before the report was released – say the same. Meanwhile, perceptions of news about the overall economy did not shift significantly over the course of the survey period.

News about the unrest in Libya – which has had a significant impact on oil prices – topped the public’s news interest last week; 23% say this was the news they followed more closely than any other story. Another 18% say they followed news about disputes between state governments and public employee unions most closely and 15% say they followed more general news about the economy that closely. Those same stories received the most coverage, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

In the first two months of 2011, the public saw more positive signs in economic news. In January, nearly seven-in-ten (68%) said they were hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, up from 55% in December. Now perceptions are comparable to the latter half of 2010.
And those more negative perceptions cross partisan lines.   More than four-in-ten Republicans (43%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy, up from 32% in February. A third of Democrats (33%) say the same, up from 23%. Among independents, 39% say they are hearing mostly bad news. That’s up from 28% one month earlier.

There also were comparable drops in those saying they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy. Among Republicans, 50% now say this, down from 62% in February. Nearly six-in-ten Democrats (56%) agree, down from 69%, as well as 57% of independents, down from 67%.

More See Bad News on Prices, Little Change in Other Sectors

While more Americans now say they are hearing mostly bad news about gas and consumer prices, perceptions of news about other economic sectors have changed little since early February. For example, 46% say they are hearing mostly bad news about real estate values, not much different from the 51% that said this in February. Still, that is down sharply from the 62% that said this in December. The percent hearing a mix of good and bad news about this has been gradually increasing since December, when it stood at 28%. Currently, 36% say this.

Looking at financial markets, 33% say they are hearing mostly bad news, while 47% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news. That is largely unchanged from February (31% mostly bad, 46% mix of good and bad).

Perceptions of news about food and consumer prices have turned more negative since last summer. Six-in-ten (62%) now say they are hearing mostly bad news about prices, compared with 41% in December and 32% last July. Nearly half (48%) said they were hearing a mix of good and bad news about consumer prices last July. That dropped to 39% in February and now stands at 26%.

The high percentages that say they are hearing mostly bad news about gas prices run across demographic and political groups. About nine-in-ten say this among Republicans (92%), Democrats (91%) and independents (89%).

Nearly all of those with household incomes of $75,000 or more (96%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about gas prices, while nearly nine-in-ten (87%) of those with incomes of less than $30,000 say the same.

The Week’s News

The public divided its attention last week between the ongoing violence in Libya and economic concerns at home. The latter includes various state budget battles and general economic news from around the nation. News coverage last week was largely in sync with the public’s interests.

More than two-in-ten Americans (23%) say they followed news about the events in Libya most closely, making this the public’s top story last week.  Libya shared the top spot one week earlier with related news about the impact of Mid-East turmoil on domestic oil prices.  About three-in-ten (31%) say they followed news about Libya very closely, down slightly from one week earlier (38%). Coverage of the situation in Libya accounted for 28% of the newshole, according to PEJ.

Nearly two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about the disputes in Wisconsin and other states between lawmakers and public employee unions most closely. The state budget conflicts accounted for 13% of coverage.  About three-in-ten (29%) say they followed news about these stories very closely, down from 36% the previous week.

There is a significant age gap in attentiveness to this news.  Among those 65 and older, 37% say they followed these stories very closely; few (12%) under 30 followed that closely. About half (51%) of young people did not follow this news at all closely.

News about U.S. economic conditions was the most closely followed story for 15% of the public. Coverage – highlighted by news about fuel prices and new federal unemployment data – accounted for 6% of the newshole.  Close to four-in-ten (37%) followed economic news very closely, comparable to the levels of interest in early January and early February of this year, but down from the 49% that said they were following this news very closely one week earlier.

About one quarter (24%) say they very closely followed news about a Supreme Court decision that protects the free speech rights of protestors at military funerals. Interest was greater than in October, when 18% said they were very closely following the case about a Baptist Church that had organized anti-gay protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers. The court’s ruling last week was the most closely followed story for 6% of the public and received 2% of coverage.

The debate in Washington over the federal budget deficit was the most closely followed story for 5%. Last week, budget news centered on Congress approving a plan to temporarily avoid a government shutdown.  About a quarter (26%) say they followed this news very closely. News about the budget debate accounted for 4% of coverage. More Republicans (33%) say they followed the budget debate very closely than either Democrats or independents (24% each).

Reports that two U.S. airmen were shot and killed by a gunman outside the airport in Frankfurt, Germany was the most closely followed story for 3% of the public. Just 16% tracked this story very closely. This news accounted for about 1% of the newshole.

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 February 28-March 6, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 3-6, from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

About the Survey

The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted March 3-6, 2011 among a national sample of 1,006 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States (674 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 332 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 144 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see:  https://legacy.pewresearch.org/politics/methodology/detailed.

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin, region, and population density to parameters from the March 2010 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size within the landline sample. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

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.