News Interest Index: Foreign Disasters Attract Interest Despite Modest Coverage

  • May 22, 2008

The American public expressed strong news interest in the earthquake in China last week even as the news media remained heavily focused on the presidential campaign. In spite of modest coverage of both the earthquake in China and the cyclone that hit Burma, the public had a fairly good sense of the magnitude of both disasters.

About one-in-five Americans (22%) say they followed news about the earthquake in China more closely than any other story last week, which is about the same percentage citing the presidential campaign as their top story (20%). By contrast, news organizations devoted much more coverage to the campaign - 37% of all news coverage - than to the China disaster (13%).

News about gas prices, which barely appeared on the news media's radar, was the public's top story. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) say they followed reports about rising gas prices more closely than any other story last week.

There were dramatic differences in coverage across media sectors last week. Cable TV news focused on the campaign almost to the exclusion of other top news stories. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's (PEJ) News Coverage Index, national cable TV news outlets devoted 74% of their coverage last week to the campaign and only 4% to the Chinese earthquake. By contrast, network TV news and national newspapers split their coverage about equally between these two stories.

Throughout the year, cable news has consistently devoted more coverage to the presidential campaign than have other news sources. And cable news coverage of the campaign has typically exceeded the public's interest in the election.

Last week represented one of the largest gaps between cable coverage of the campaign and public interest in the race. While cable networks devoted 74% of their coverage to the campaign, only 20% of the public listed the campaign as the single news story they followed most closely.

Interest in the campaign declined from 30% the previous week, and is down substantially from earlier in the campaign. In mid-February (Feb. 11-17), 46% cited the presidential campaign as their top news story, more than double the percentage last week.

Read the full report Foreign Disasters Attract Interest Despite Modest Coverage on the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Web site.