April 8, 2010

News Coverage of the 2010 Census

Stories about the 2010 Census account for a growing — albeit small — fraction of U.S. news coverage, according to statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For the week of March 29-April 4, stories about the census filled 2% of the “newshole,” which is the space and time devoted to print, online and broadcast news coverage as tracked by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. The 2010 Census ranked as the 14th largest story last week, a time period that included April 1, Census Day.

The top story last week was coverage of the U.S. economy, which filled 10% of the newshole; some of those stories noted that temporary hiring by the Census Bureau was one reason for recent gains in employment nationwide. In second place last week was the health care bill, at 9%, dropping from 45% the previous week.

The PEJ statistics track coverage of the 2010 Census each week starting Feb. 1-7. From then through last week, the 2010 Census accounted for 0.4% of total coverage, and it ranked only 37th among top stories. The census had its highest share of coverage last week.

Growing Share of Coverage but Small Fraction

The 2010 Census filled less than 1% of the newshole until the week of March 15-21, when the government mailed census forms to 120 million U.S. households, which include the vast majority of the population. The census made up 1% of coverage that week and the following week, March 22-28, when the government began releasing participation rates for neighborhoods, states and the nation in an attempt to encourage more people to send back their forms.

The week of March 29-April 4 is arguably the most important time period  for the success of the 2010 Census. Americans are asked on their forms to list everyone who lived in their households on April 1 and Census officials announced that day that 54% of those who had received forms had mailed them back. (As of April 7, the share stood at 63%.)

Of the five forms of media tracked by PEJ, network TV devoted the most space to coverage of the 2010 Census last week — 4% of its newshole, making the national headcount the 8th-ranked story in that medium. Next was radio, where the census filled 3% of the newshole, ranking 11th among top stories. Online media gave 2% of its newshole to the census, where it ranked 13th among stories. The census filled 1% of the newspaper newshole and ranked 27th among top stories. Cable TV gave it less than 1% of its newshole, and the census ranked 30th as a story in that medium.

Most Americans Know About the 2010 Census

Despite the small fraction of news coverage devoted to the 2010 Census, the vast majority of Americans are aware that the head count is being taken and most plan to participate, according to Pew Research Center surveys. A survey taken March 10-14 found that 94% of Americans knew about the census and 79% had heard something recently. A survey of Hispanics conducted March 16-25 by the Pew Hispanic Center also found high awareness.

The Census Bureau is not depending on free media as the only vehicle for spreading awareness of the 2010 Census. The bureau is spending $133 million on paid advertising, and has signed up hundreds of thousands of partner organizations such as churches and community groups to encourage people to fill out their forms. The Pew Hispanic Center survey found that nearly half of Latinos (and a majority of foreign-born Latinos) had seen or heard a message from an organization encouraging them to fill out their census forms.

PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 52 different outlets from five sectors of the media: print, online, network TV, cable and radio. The weekly study, which includes some 1,100 stories, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of that media narrative and differences among news platforms.