Numlock Sunday: Cameron Easley on 2022 in retrospect
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
Welcome to the final Sunday edition of 2022! We’re off on Christmas and New Year’s and will resume in 2023. To end on a tradition, though, this week I spoke to Cameron Easley of Morning Consult about their forthcoming Seen, Read, Heard year-end feature.
This will be the fifth time I’ve closed out the year on this feature, which rounds up all the polling Morning Consult did in 2022 and really gets at the heart of what news people were paying attention to. This year’s edition of the survey drops on Monday, but they were kind enough to give us a little sneak peek.
Enjoy this recap of 2022 and then have an excellent new year! The weekday edition of the newsletter will run through Friday and then be off until January 3. Thank you so much for your support of Numlock in 2022; your subscription makes this outfit possible and I’m so grateful. Don’t hesitate to email me if you have any ideas you want to see in 2023!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
All right, Cameron, thank you so much for coming on. You are at Morning Consult and every year Morning Consult finishes the year with aggregating all of their seen, read, heards. Do you want to talk a little bit about what these questions are and why it's interesting to look at them like this?
Anytime a pollster is trying to get a grip on the public's view or knowledge of a certain situation on a particular policy or item that's popping in the political scene or in business or wherever it would be, usually one of the first questions you'd want to ask is how much they've heard about something or how familiar they are with something. Morning Consult is in the field talking to more than 4,000 registered voters and around 5,000 U.S. adults every single day.
Throughout the year, we are often asking people how much they have seen, read or heard about a particular item in the news. When it gets to the end of the calendar year, we're just sitting on tons and tons of data on how much registered voters or U.S. adults heard about a particular news item, and then looking into those subgroups: Democrats, Republicans, Independents, cuts by age, that sort of thing. It's just a really interesting way to look back and kind of test maybe some blind spots that we in the media may have about whether something is as big of a deal as we may think it is.
I always love this because it's a real good gut check on what really took people's attentions. For example, I'm always shocked at how well a weather event does every year.
Absolutely. I mean, I think one thing that really comes through each and every year is the stories that are really made for TV, the stories that can continue to percolate in the 24-hour news cycle that ends up being the most resonant with the U.S. audience.
So let's just talk a little bit about what some of these top ones are. Do you want to maybe take us through some of the top five?
Yeah, sure. Before I get into this, one thing I would note is that for this year we saw several more news events break through more broadly with the public than we saw in 2021. The top news event of 2021, which was Biden signing the coronavirus release package into law, was about the only— About 65 percent heard a lot, and that wouldn't have even placed in the top five in 2022.
Leading the way in 2022 is the shooting in Uvalde, Texas; 73 percent of registered voters said they heard a lot about that. Rounding out that kind of top four are the Supreme Court's move in late June to end Roe v. Wade via the Dobbs decision concerning abortion, also Queen Elizabeth's death, and then Hurricane Ian making landfall in Florida. Those are the top four. For all those events, at least 70 percent of voters said they heard a lot about that. And then followed by that at 65 percent, it was Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24th.
It's really interesting how some of these news events were just so much more salient than previous years. You and I have talked a little bit in the past about how for a while there was actually an increasing gap between how Democrats and Republicans would perceive a story. Since you guys started doing this in 2018, the gap widened pretty substantially. But this year you actually saw it contract a little bit. Both parties appear to be kind of reading a little bit more often from the same news source.
I think there's something to that. In 2022 Democrats were 6 percentage points more likely on average to report hearing a lot about a news item on our curated list; that is down slightly from 7 points in 2021.
But I think the more interesting trend here is that even though we are seeing more events in 2022 that really broke through at the highest level to the public, at the same time we are still seeing the average resonance continue to decline. Twenty-nine percent of voters for our curated list in 2022 said that they heard a lot about the average news item, and that's down from 33 percent in 2021. Even though at the top of the list there are more of these eye-catching, attention-grabbing storylines, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, we are seeing a continued decline in overall news resonance. That's been pretty steady since we started this project in 2018.
What do you attribute that to?
I think in a lot of ways the 2020 campaign from President Biden, one of his biggest pitches was, "If I'm president, you don't have to be on Twitter, worry about what I'm saying at every time. We can just get back to normal in some ways."
I think just Trump, while still having an outsized influence on the dialogue and the discourse of the political scene, him no longer being president, not being on Twitter, I think it's clear that is having something of an impact on resonance of news items.
I think it's also possible that for a lot of people, just after the past few years they feel like they're now in a position to be able to disengage somewhat.
It is really interesting, y'all did a bunch of polling before the election about what issues are important to people and if I recall correctly, the top one was inflation. You don't really see that kind of resonate here. The things that people care about maybe aren't always is the things that are necessarily breaking news stories.
Well that's a good point, Walt, although I would say that we did poll on inflation report throughout the year and at least 40 percent of voters in nearly all cases heard about each and every one of those inflation reports. That was way more than the share of voters who reported hearing a lot about the jobs reports, which happened to be better news.
Similarly, when gas prices go up, we saw much larger amounts of resonance among the voter base than we did whenever gas prices went down. It's clear that economic news was still registering with people and negative economic news was registering with people much more than the positive economic news.
At the same time, a regularly scheduled economic report, it's probably not going to grab people or shake people in the same way as something happening out of the blue like the death of Queen Elizabeth or obviously a return of a major tragic mass shooting, which we saw something of a reprieve from in '20 and in '21 due to the pandemic. Those are the events that really grab people.
One thing I also thought on that note that's interesting is that the highest ranking economic story this year was the baby formula shortages, which is a supply chain story, but a consumer-facing one, right?
One hundred percent. I mean to my earlier point, that's a great example of a story that just continues to feature in the news, not just from a 72- to 96-hour perspective, but over the whole course of May, of a month. I think that's a big reason that you see that number being so high.
Fascinating. So what else popped out to you from this report this year?
Well, I think one thing that's definitely interesting is we see a continuation of this dynamic that partisan voters are much more likely to report hearing a lot about news that is good for their party than news that is bad for their party. So that's one major trend.
I think another is that Democrats continue to be a good bit more likely than Republicans on average to report following the news in general or hearing a lot about a particular story. The one inverse of what I was just talking about, the biggest gap where Republicans heard more about a news event than Democrats, was President Biden's kind of hot mic moment earlier in the year whenever he was heard referring to Fox reporter Steve Doocy with an expletive in response to a question about inflation. We do continue to see that Democrats are hearing a lot more about or reporting hearing a lot more about news than Republicans are. But whenever there are exceptions to that rule I feel like is very, very enlightening. People are much less likely to report hearing a lot about something that might be damaging to their party.
I want to address this one thing real quick. The 71 percent share of voters who had heard a lot about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, that's an interesting number to me because I can never really actually put my finger on how interested Americans are in the British royal family.
On one hand that is one of the highest events of the year; on the other hand, if you compare it to your previous polling like that, the death of George H.W. Bush in 2018 and the death of Kobe Bryant in particular in 2020, they somehow had a higher awareness than the death of Queen Elizabeth.
I suppose I would just be interested in your point of view on how some of those more acute events register in the news.
I think the main story there is that the deaths of major leading figures break through the regular news bubbles that might crop up. We've done a lot of polling throughout the year on international events this year and for the vast majority of them, very, very few American voters report hearing a lot about them.
I think even going a little bit further down on the list, Bob Saget's death in January, 50 percent of voters reported hearing a lot about that. I do think obituaries, news of death, they do get picked up in a very big way and they make huge headlines.
I also think part of that is these are kind of events that are going to break through across the media environment, which is segmented and fragmented at this point. A lot of things get picked up in some places that don't in others, but these kind of major events, deaths of the top athletes, former presidents and obviously a queen who had enjoyed just a monumentally long reign, those are just things that really will pick up coverage from a variety of sources across a variety of the spectrum.
All right. Well again, thanks again for doing this. The report's out tomorrow and it is always a really good read. You always have this part of it that I think is very fun where you talk about the share of voters who heard, seen, read, heard nothing at all about the following news events.
I also like going through past years of those, because sometimes you can see people who deliberately ignored a thing and then it's very substantial years down the line. For example, if you go to the 2018 ones, it's Ocasio-Cortez defeats Crowley, and it's SCOTUS legalizes sports betting. The careers of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the availability of national sports betting are now massive news stories.
From these under-the-radar stories that you highlighted this year, which ones do you think that we're going to be talking about in four years?
That's a good question. I mean, looking at the list this year, I pretty much call it "the news events that didn't break through in 2022," but I also like to call that "Twitter isn't real life."
But I do think if there's one thing on here that we might be talking about for years to come that didn't, or at least in the immediate year to come, that didn't get much attention, were the sexual harassment allegations against Elon Musk earlier this year. He's certainly dominating the media conversation. I think there's a real irony in me calling this the “Twitter isn't real life” section and then the thing I'm telling you to watch for involves the now owner of Twitter.
I think a lot of the events on here, Madison Cawthorn's cocaine talk on that podcast, who knows if we'll be seeing him return to the political scene anytime soon.
Another thing on here, FTX spiraling — obviously crypto is going to continue to dominate the regulatory conversation over the next year, even though we may not actually see any regulations come to fruition due to a variety of factors. But I think between that and Elon Musk, I think those are two things to really potentially watch out for in 2023.
All right. Well, hey Cam, thanks again for coming on. Where can folks find you, find the report and all that?
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.