February 23, 2007

Iraq Most Closely Followed and Covered News Story

Summary of Findings

The public and the news media divided their attention last week among the top international stories, harsh winter weather, politics and the ongoing saga surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith. The Iraq war remained the No. 1 story both in terms of public interest and news coverage, however, the public hung on to the Anna Nicole Smith story, even as press coverage began to taper off.

The Smith audience is quite distinct. Women were twice as likely as men to list this as their top story (22% vs. 11%), and younger women continued to be the most hooked. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) of women under the age of 50 listed this as their top story — about half as many named the Iraq war. For these younger women, cable news was clearly the place to go last week for coverage of the story. While 6% of coverage on all media sectors (newspapers, network TV, cable TV, radio and the Internet) was devoted to Smith’s death, fully 20% of cable news focused on this story. At the height of the media’s feeding frenzy (the two day period immediately following Smith’s death), 24% of all coverage and 50% of cable news was devoted to the story.

Anna Nicole Bests Bush

Whether they were following news about Smith closely or not, her name is on the tip of many Americans’ tongues these days. Fully 38% of the public volunteered Smith’s name when asked who they had heard the most about in the news lately. She edged out George W. Bush by a significant margin (28% named the president) and left Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama (3%) and Hillary Clinton (3%) in the dust.

These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, a new initiative by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s agenda. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism‘s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis.

The index measures news attentiveness in a variety of ways. Using the Center’s traditional approach, interest in individual news stories is evaluated by asking respondents if they have been following a story very closely, fairly closely, not too closely, or not at all closely. In addition, the public’s interest in specific stories is measured relative to interest in the other top stories of the week. Respondents are given a list of the six top stories and asked which one they have followed most closely. This measure gives a greater approximation of the public’s attentiveness to the weekly menu of news as offered up by the news media. The weekly survey also includes open-ended questions where respondents are asked to name the first news story or newsmaker that comes to mind. All of these measures are taken into account when making comparisons to the amount of news coverage the various stories have received.

For the 7th consecutive week in a row, the situation in Iraq was the story the public was most interested in. Three-in-ten Americans followed the Iraq war very closely this past week, and 26% said this was the story they followed most closely. The Iraq war, both the policy debate and events on the ground, has consistently led news coverage as well. Roughly one-fifth of the newshole has been devoted to Iraq in each the past four weeks.

The gender gap on the Iraq story has sharpened over the past two weeks, as many women have been drawn toward the Anna Nicole Smith story. This past week, 33% of men said Iraq was the story they followed most closely. This compares to only 20% of women. Democrats continue to be somewhat more focused than Republicans on Iraq news — 30% vs. 21%, respectively, listed Iraq as their top news story last week.

Not only is Iraq the most closely followed story, it’s the one many Americans would like to learn even more about. When asked which of the week’s top news stories they wished they could devote more time to, 15% of the public named Iraq. Nearly as many (12%) pointed to the 2008 presidential campaign, and another 10% said they wish they had more time to follow reports about Iran’s possible connection to Iraqi insurgents. Very few Americans said they hadn’t gotten their fill of news about Anna Nicole Smith — only 3% said they wish they had more time to follow this story. For the most part, the public was fairly content with the amount of time they had to focus on the major news stories of the week. A 62% majority said they didn’t wish they had time to follow any of the top stories more closely.

The weather is always a popular subject with the public and the news media, and last week’s winter storm, which snarled traffic at airports and on highways up and down the East Coast, was no exception. Fully 30% of the public followed news about the weather very closely (equal to the percent that followed Iraq very closely), and 16% said this was the story they followed most closely last week. The media devoted more time to the storm than they had to the frigid temperatures the week before. Seven percent of the newshole was devoted to this topic, up from 3% the previous week.

Of the two remaining major international stories of the week — bad news on Iran and potentially good news about North Korea — the public paid more attention to the Iran story. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) paid very close attention to reports that Iran may be supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq, and 6% said this was the story they followed most closely. Media coverage of this issue was substantial — 7% of the newshole was devoted to the Iran story making it the third most covered story overall and the top story on the front page of the nation’s newspapers. The coverage encompassed both the Iranian government’s possible connection to Iraqi insurgents and worries about a potential military conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to say this was their top story: 11% vs. 3%, respectively.

North Korea’s agreement to disable its main nuclear facility in exchange for energy assistance, though it received almost as much media coverage as the Iran story, attracted relatively little interest from the public. Fifteen percent said they followed the story very closely and only 2% said it was their top story.

Interest in the 2008 presidential campaign fell off slightly this past week, though coverage remained steady: 18% of the public followed campaign-related news very closely, and 9% said this was their top story. Mitt Romney’s formal announcement that he is a candidate for the Republican nomination didn’t galvanize the GOP faithful, as Democrats continued to follow news about the ’08 campaign more closely than Republicans.

About the News Interest Index

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.