by Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review, http://www.cjr.org, September 7, 2007
In an August 31, 2007 article on the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) website, Curtis Brainard highlights findings from a recent Pew Research Center for People & the Press report on trends in American news consumption. Brainard writes that American news preferences have remained "surprisingly static" over the last 20 years, but notes that Americans report following the news more closely when changes in world events, such as 9/11 and the Iraq War, become a part of their "realities."
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.
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...