April 9, 2003

War Coverage Praised, But Public Hungry for Other News

Overcovered: Protesters, Ex-Generals

Summary of Findings

The public is paying close attention to the war and continues to give news organizations high marks for their coverage. But a sizable minority of Americans (39%) feel the news media is focusing too heavily on the war, and significant numbers believe the media is undercovering other major stories like the tax cut debate and the state of the U.S. economy.

When it comes to various aspects of the war, the public has clear ideas of what is being overcovered and undercovered. Four-in-ten Americans say the press is giving too much coverage to anti-war protesters, and almost as many (36%) feel the media has given too much attention to commentary by retired military officers. In contrast, three-in-ten say there has too little coverage of the cost of war (31%), the personal experiences of ordinary soldiers (30%) and civilian casualties in Iraq (28%).

The latest Pew Research Center war tracking survey of 912 Americans, conducted April 2-7, finds continuing strong support for military action in Iraq and a dramatic improvement in perceptions of how well the war is going. Over the past few days, seven-in-ten Americans say the U.S. made the right decision in going to war ­ a number that has remained steady since the war began. A 55% majority says the war is going very well, up from 39% at the end of March following first reports of American casualties and other negative war news.

Most Americans (55%) feel the media has given the war the right amount of coverage, but those who say it has gotten too much coverage far outnumber the percentage who think the war has been undercovered (39%-4%). By contrast, significant numbers say there has been too little coverage of other significant issues facing the country, including debate about the president’s proposed tax cuts (45% say there’s too little coverage), the condition of the economy (43%), the federal budget deficit (42%), the race for the Democratic presidential nomination (38%), and the lung disease known as “SARS” (33%).

War Views Influence Feelings About Coverage

Views on what the press should be covering are strongly related to opinions about the war and to partisanship as well. Only one-third of war supporters say there is too much coverage of the conflict. But among those who think the U.S. made the wrong decision in going to war, 62% think the press is overdoing it. Many more opponents of the war than supporters say that all non-war subjects are getting too little attention. For example, two-thirds of opponents say there is too little coverage of the condition of the domestic economy, while just 35% of war supporters feel this way. Not surprisingly, a majority of Democrats (57%) say there has been too little coverage of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. One-quarter of Republicans (26%) feel this way.

Similarly, war supporters and opponents differ on which aspects of the war itself have been overcovered and undercovered. Fully half (52%) of those who think the U.S. made the wrong decision in taking military action say there has been too little coverage of Iraqi civilian casualties, and 57% have heard too little about the cost of the war. Just 23% of war supporters want to hear more about the costs and only 22% want to hear more about Iraqi civilian casualties. Not surprisingly, war supporters have say the press is giving anti-war protests too much coverage, not too little, by a 48% to 11% margin, while those who think war was the wrong decision feel differently (42% say there has been too little coverage of anti-war sentiment, 17% too much).

While they disagree on most aspects of press coverage, war supporters and opponents have generally the same view of the level of commentary from retired military officers. By well over two-to-one, members of both groups say they have heard too much, not too little, from the “armchair generals.”

The TV War

Public interest in the war in Iraq and attention to news coverage have been consistently high over the past two weeks. Over the weekend, 54% said they were following news about the war very closely, and another 34% were following fairly closely. As many as 39% go so far to say they feel as if they “can’t stop watching news about the war.”

The intense levels of information coming from Iraq have had immediate effects on the public’s evaluation of the war’s progress, as well as people’s emotional states. The percentage saying the military effort in Iraq was progressing “very well” dropped from 65% to 39% within the first week of the engagement, as news about Iraqi resistance to the ground war dominated the news, and has risen again to 55% in the last week as reports about the successful campaign against Bagdad became the central story.

Emotional reactions to the news have followed the same pattern in reverse. The proportion saying that watching TV coverage of the war made them feel sad or was frightening to watch peaked March 25-27 (at 67% and 58%, respectively) and has since fallen (to 62% and 50%, respectively) in the latest poll. Somewhat fewer (37%) say the war coverage tires them out than was the case last week (42%).

Despite the variable reactions to news coverage of the war, public support for the military effort never faltered. Currently, 72% say military action in Iraq was the right decision, while 20% say it was the wrong decision. Support has not differed more than a few percentage points from this mark since the war began.

The president’s job approval, both generally and specifically with respect to handling the war, has also remained steady in the face of changing news about how well the war effort is proceeding. Currently, 69% approve the Bush’s job performance and 73% approve of his handling of the war.

Just under one-in-four (24%) say the U.S. and its allies have won the war in Iraq, while 74% say it is still too early to tell. But this should not be taken to mean that the American public is pessimistic about the war’s outcome or progress. Currently, 55% say things are going very well in Iraq, while just 5% say things are not going well.

Neutral Coverage Preferred

The public strongly prefers neutral coverage of the war to coverage that takes an explicitly pro-American point of view. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say neutral coverage is better, while only about a quarter (23%) want coverage to be pro-American.

Somewhat more Americans say they prefer pro-American coverage now than did so before the war began (23% now, 16% in February). Opinion on this issue now is nearly the same as it was during the first Persian Gulf War, when 71% favored neutral coverage, and 22% preferred a pro-American tilt. There was a greater desire for pro-American coverage during the war in Afghanistan, when three-in-ten said coverage should be pro-American.

War supporters are more likely to favor pro-American coverage than are war opponents, but the overwhelming majority in both groups want objective reporting. People who think the U.S. made the wrong decision to take military action in Iraq overwhelmingly want news coverage to be neutral (82%), not pro-American (12%). Among those who think war was the right decision, 66% agree that the press should remain neutral. But war supporters are twice as likely as war opponents to say pro-American coverage is better (26%).

Favorable Reviews, But Some Say Media Is Too Critical

Since the war began, Americans have given news coverage a positive rating. In recent days (April 2-7), 74% of Americans say coverage is excellent (32%) or good (42%). Favorable ratings for news coverage were a bit higher in the first days of the war (80% positive March 20-22), b
ut otherwise have remained in the low to mid-70% range.

Nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) feel war coverage has been too critical of the way the U.S. and its allies have been conducting the military campaign, more than twice as many who say the coverage has not been critical enough of the military (9%). Most people (62%) think news organizations have handled the coverage properly.

War supporters are generally satisfied with the coverage, but many more say it has been too critical rather than not critical enough (26%-6%). War opponents are more divided, with slightly more saying the coverage is not critical enough rather than too critical (21%-20%). But majorities in both groups feel the tone of the coverage has been appropriate.

Embedded Journalists Seen As Fair

The public has had a favorable reaction to the practice of having reporters travel with U.S. troops in Iraq and file reports from the battlefield. Eight-in-ten think the reports from embedded journalists are fair and objective. The minority that disagrees is evenly divided between those who feel the embedded journalists are too critical of U.S. forces and those who think they take the side of the troops too much (7% each).

War opponents are the only group in which a significant minority raises objections to coverage from embedded journalists. Nearly one-one-in-five (18%) of those who think the U.S. made the wrong decision in attacking Iraq feel those journalists take the side U.S. troops too much. Seven-in-ten war opponents feel the reports are fair and objective, but that is significantly fewer than the number of war supporters who rate the coverage from embeddeds as fair and objective (85%).

In general, the public has a positive opinion of the practice of embedding reporters with military forces. Roughly six-in-ten (58%) believe embedded reporters are a good thing, while 34% have a negative view of the practice (See “TV Combat Fatigue on the Rise,” March 28, 2003).