It’s almost fifty pages long, but well worth the read: a recent study by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press synthesizes 165 separate national surveys and finds that American news preferences have remained “surprisingly static” over the last twenty years. Tucked behind this central conclusion, however, is a suite of more intriguing observations about readership and audience habits.


Overall, the study found the percentage of people who follow the news “very closely” dropped from thirty percent during the 1980s to twenty-three percent during 1990s - but then jumped back to thirty percent during the twenty-first century. That swing has less to do with changes in information technology (from broadcast, to cable, to online) than with changes in world events - or “reality” as study author Michael J. Robinson described it. The dip in public attention during the last decade of the twentieth century was likely the result of relative peace and economic prosperity in the United States, he wrote: “The ’80s were more ‘interesting’; the ’90s, less so; the ’00s have been most interesting so far.”


The study broke down news in nineteen separate categories and then six “super categories.” Not surprisingly, war and terrorism have consistently ranked at the top of the stack since 1986, where the study begins. So have bad weather, and natural or manmade disaster stories, although the latter stand out for having witnessed a precipitous drop in public interest, one of the rare instances of significant change. In contrast, money news is the only category that has grown notably more popular with time. Crime, health, and politics have consistently ranked as mid-level interest categories. Science and technology, foreign news that is not directly related to the U.S., and tabloid and entertainment news have consistently ranked lowest in the public eye.


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It is disheartening that only about a quarter of the American public, on average, finds news compelling on a daily basis. But contrary to popular belief, “there is scant evidence that during the last century - despite major changes in the news ‘menu’ - the American audience has moved toward a diet of softer news. News tastes have become neither less nor more serious since the 1980s,” Robinson concluded. As this singular observation indicates, the study, overall, is a mixed bag of the reassuring and the dismaying. Reading it leaves an impression not unlike the feeling of having broken even in a game of high-stakes poker - mostly frustrated, but a little relieved.


Given the mostly changeless nature of public news interests over time, some of the more interesting aspects of Robison’s work are his observations about the stories people have latched onto during the first half of this year. He compares Pew’s “News Interest Index” with the “News Coverage Index” from Journalism.org to determine where the former lagged, equaled, or surpassed the latter.


Stories that elicited significant amounts of coverage, but little public interest, included Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firing of eight federal prosecutors, the trial and sentencing of White House aide Scooter Libby, and the criminal charges against astronaut Lisa Nowak. Stories that inspired equally large amounts of coverage and interest included the war in Iraq, the boys kidnapped in Missouri, and search and rescue of the hikers on Mt. Hood. Regarding Iraq, it is interesting to note that the execution of Saddam Hussein provoked equally low levels of coverage and interest. Finally, stories that aroused much more interest than coverage included global warming and inadequate conditions for soldiers and marines at Walter Reed Medical Center.


Another finding of particular importance for the immediate future is that, “Even though the recent presidential campaign has attracted higher than normal interest for this stage in the election cycle, audience interest has lagged behind the level of media coverage.” This may be disappointing, but there is some solace (especially given the recent gossip surrounding Idaho Sen. Larry Craig) to be found in another of the report’s conclusions: that people’s appetite for political scandal is even lower. “Public interest in ‘watchdoggery’ seems unpredictable, if not bizarre,” Robinson concludes.


Nonetheless, there are certain ways to predict what the public will be interested in, he noted, regardless of whether the topic is politics, foreign affairs, disasters, science or anything else. “Polarizing social issues involving family, sexuality, patriotism and God engender the highest levels of attention,” Robison wrote. In addition, proximity to home can make a big difference, as can human interest. When Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas in 1987, one year after the Chernobyl disaster, sixty-nine percent of America paid rapt attention to her rescue. “That reading put Baby Jessica in eighth place among all 1,300 stories” [the Pew studied examined], Robison wrote. “Chernobyl, in contrast, failed to rank in the top 100 stories.”


Thankfully, celebrity scandal ranks lowest among all news preferences. Writing for The Nation, Eric Alterman argues that the lack of interest in this subject is the study’s “most shocking” conclusion. The finding is especially surprising given the “major changes in the news ‘menu,’” that Robison describes, where “substantial coverage” devoted to stories such as Paris Hilton’s incarceration and Anna Nicole Smith’s death.


Yet what is truly fascinating is the explanation for this contradiction between interest and coverage: “Even the smallest shifts in ratings can cause news organizations to alter substantially their news focus,” Robinson writes, and often toward “a lower common denominator.” But these alterations, marked by “saturation” coverage, are often temporary and aimed at capturing the niche rather than the national audience. This harkens back to the earlier, chicken-and-egg discussion of where interest lags behind coverage, and where it exceeds coverage. “That the national news audience does not shift its news diet nearly so quickly as news organizations shift their news menu” is one of the most important take-away messages for journalists in Robinson’s study.


Robinson implies that on a national scale changes in coverage tend to mold public interest rather than vice versa. If so, journalists must be especially cognizant of their influence on not only opinions about the news, but also on what is considered newsworthy to begin with. Responsible editors and reporters like to think they do not pander to people’s basest interests, but rather guide and educate them. So perhaps the more pressing question is not, how have preferences changed, but rather to what degree and how quickly does content influence those preferences? Does a diet of more junk food create an appetite for more junk? Does a healthy diet create the reverse?


And if an outlet such as CNN chooses to even temporarily woo a niche audience for the sake of ratings - by chasing the Anna Nicole Smith story, for example - what is sacrificed with regard to the national audience? Hopefully, reports such as the Robinson’s study will help guide journalists as they try to find answers.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.