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Sept. 11 hasn't changed public's attentiveness to news, study reveals

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
(217) 333-2177; a-lynn@illinois.edu

Scott Althaus, assistant professor of speech communication and political science
(217) 333-8968; salthaus@illinois.edu


9/9/2002


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Americans are no more attentive today to news of the world than they were before the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a study just released in the September issue of PS: Political Science & Politics. The study by Scott Althaus, a professor of speech communication and political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is part of a special issue of the journal devoted to civic engagement since the terrorist attacks on the United States nearly a year ago.

In the study, Althaus used Nielsen ratings to examine changes in the number of Americans watching network and cable news programs in the months before and after Sept. 11, 2001. "Americans are no more interested today in news of the world than they were before the tragic events of 9/11," he said, adding that "This is contrary to the widespread – but incorrect – view that 9/11 ushered in a fundamental change to the political culture of American society."

The tragedies of Sept. 11 more than doubled the size of the evening network news audience from 13 percent of American adults in the week of Sept. 3 to more than 26 percent in the week of Sept. 10.
However, as impressive as this may seem, Althaus wrote, "the January 2001 Super Bowl attracted about the same number of viewers. Moreover, the evening news audience just as swiftly contracted to 15 percent of American adults in the week of September 17-23 and never rose more than one-and-a-half percentage points above that level in the following seven months."

Althaus also found that network news audiences held stable at about four percentage points above pre-9/11 levels for several months "before declining steadily after the start of the new year in 2002," and by mid-April 2002, the evening news audience "had returned to the previous July’s level of just 13 percent of adults."

Thus, Althaus argues that "If 9/11 ushered in a new era of civic-mindedness in the United States, it seems to have left Americans’ collective appetite for news largely undisturbed. The size of the network television news audience grew only slightly, and newspaper readership continued to decline after 9/11.
While the average size of the cable news audience has doubled, it remains a small fraction of American adults, and the audiences for both network and cable news have diminished with each passing month."

After September 2001, polls showed "a rapid falloff in the percentage of the public concerned about terrorism," their "unease with the state of the economy" rivaling terrorism as "the top issue of public concern in the first quarter of 2002." Thus, "the public’s steady retreat from opportunities for news exposure should give pause to military and political leaders pondering the next step in this solemn undertaking."

Brian Gaines, who also is a professor of political science at Illinois, also has an article in the special PS issue.
PS is the journal of the American Political Science Association.