Americans may not understand the Wall Street financial crisis, often described in ambiguous, alarming terms by the news media. But public concerns are pronounced. A confused nation is getting fearful, according to research released Tuesday.
Most think that somehow, the bad guys are going to get away with it.
More than three-fourths worry that "the people who caused these problems in the first place" will ultimately benefit from a federal bailout, says a CNN/Opinion Research survey of 1,020 adults conducted Sept. 19-21.
Half said the government did too little to regulate Wall Street; more than a quarter said "too much" was done. Still, 79 percent of the respondents fretted that the economy would worsen if the government did not intervene.
But who is to blame? There are several villains on the public radar.
A Zogby poll of 2,331 likely voters conducted Sept. 19-20 revealed that 84 percent expected more financial catastrophe. Twenty-seven percent blamed the Bush administration; 20 percent blamed Congress. Twelve percent said investment banks were the culprits, while 17 percent cited mortgage brokers.
Cynical respondents demand justice: 83 percent want "those responsible" to be held on criminal charges, though 60 percent also doubted this would ever come to pass.
Americans have been living with economic anxiety for some time. Money issues led the American Psychological Association's Top 10 list of stress producers in June, based on the opinions of 2,500 respondents.
Psychologist Katherine Nordal advises the public to analyze their priorities and take control of personal finances. "Pause but don't panic. Remain calm, stay focused and avoid getting caught up in the doom-and-gloom hype in the media," she said.
The press is partially to blame for public confusion and angst, however.
Hyperbole is rampant, with journalists bandying about loaded but nonspecific terms such as "plunge," "disaster" and "meltdown" with abandon. "Meltdown," in fact, was used in almost 4,500 news accounts in the past 48 hours alone, according to a Google News count.
"Blinded by its obsession with the presidential campaign (an obsession that has too often revolved around tactics and trivia), the press this summer all but ignored the unfolding financial story at a time when the public announced, week after week, that it was starved for more economic reporting and that the economy was, without question and perhaps without precedent, the single most pressing issue for the presidential campaign," noted Eric Boehlert of the liberal Media Matters for America on Tuesday.
An analysis released Tuesday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the economy, rather than the campaign, is now the No. 1 media topic. Still, journalists are pouncing upon partisan possibilities. Wall Street's influence on the race now makes up 43 percent of all campaign stories, with Republican vice-presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in second place, at 12 percent.