Attorney Firings Stir Limited Public Interest
Despite Extensive News Coverage
Summary of Findings
The controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys is not attracting strong public interest in spite of intense media coverage of the story. In fact, the story evokes a typical response from the public when compared with news interest in past Washington scandals. Amid calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ resignation, the news media’s coverage of the story outstripped public interest. Most Americans remained focused on the Iraq war and the problems facing returning soldiers.
Overall, 19% of the public paid very close attention to news about the fired U.S. attorneys and 8% said this was the single news story they followed more closely than any other. The news media devoted 16% of its coverage overall to the firings – an eight-fold increase over the week of March 5 – making it the most covered story of the week. Public interest increased as well though at a lower rate. Democrats followed the U.S. attorneys story more closely than Republicans (23% vs. 15%, respectively, followed it very closely).This story did generate more public interest than the recent verdict in the Scooter Libby trial – one of last week’s most covered news stories. Only 13% followed that story very closely.
Looking at past Washington scandals involving senior government officials, the firing of eight U.S. attorneys generated an average amount of interest from the public. It is on par with Whitewater, the HUD scandal of the late 1980s, Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Tom Delay’s indictment for campaign finance violations and the savings and loan scandal of the early 1990s.
Public Remains Focused on Iraq
While the news media focused on how Gonzales and the White House were connected to the U.S. attorney firings, the public remained intensely focused on the Iraq War. Fully 34% said they followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely and 23% listed Iraq as the story they followed most closely last week. Nearly as many (31%) followed news about conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and more general stories about problems with medical care for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq. Some 17% said this was the story they followed most closely. Coverage of this story fell off somewhat from the previous week— 4% of coverage in all media sectors was devoted to this story last week vs. 6% the week of March 5.
These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of 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.
In other top stories this week, the steady stream of news about the 2008 presidential campaign continued. Nine percent of news coverage in all sectors was devoted to this topic. For the past two months, media coverage of the campaign has focused largely on the two leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That fact has not been lost on the public, as these two campaigns are at the forefront of the public’s mind. When asked to name the candidate they’ve heard the most about in the news lately, 37% named Clinton and another 24% named Barack Obama. Mentions of all other candidates were in single digits: 3% or fewer named John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John Edwards.
Women were somewhat more likely than men to name Clinton (40% vs. 34%, respectively). Even so, she was the top pick of both men and women. Clinton and Obama overshadowed the other candidates even among Republicans. Nearly one-third of Republicans named Clinton when asked which candidate they had heard the most about in the news lately, another 27% named Obama. Ten percent of Republicans named a GOP candidate: 8% named Giuliani, 6% named McCain and less than 1% named Romney. Among Democrats, 48% named Clinton and 26% named Obama. Only 1% named Edwards.
Overall, public interest in the campaign fell off somewhat from previous weeks while coverage remained about the same. Fifteen percent of the public followed news about the candidates very closely last week, down from 24% and 19% the previous two weeks. Roughly one-in-ten Americans named the campaign as the story they followed most closely. Democrats paid closer attention to campaign news than did Republicans – 22% vs. 12%, respectively, followed this story very closely.
Recent news about the stock market attracted a modest audience – 18% of the public followed this story very closely while 8% said it was the story they followed most closely. Two weeks earlier, when stocks took a dramatic tumble, the public was following the market somewhat more closely. Stock market happenings drew in a distinct audience – Republicans and men were among the most likely to pay close attention to this story. In addition, the income gap on this story is substantial. Fully 57% of those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or higher followed news about the stock market very or fairly closely. This compares with 40% of those making between $50,000 and $75,000, and fewer than 30% of those making less than $50,000 a year.
News about Bush
Roughly one-in-ten Americans (11%) paid very close attention to President Bush’s recent trip to Latin America. This is on a par with previous Bush trips in terms of public interest. Three percent of media coverage for the week was devoted to Bush’s trip.
With regard to news coverage of the president more generally, 33% of the public believes the media is being unfair to the Bush administration, 53% say the media is being fair, and another 14% has no opinion. Over the course of his presidency, the perception that Bush is being treated unfairly by the media has grown gradually. At the beginning of 2001, only 19% said the media was being unfair to the president. By the summer of 2003, 24% held this view, and by the fall of 2005, the number had increased to 31%. Perceptions of media coverage of Bill Clinton’s administration followed a similar trajectory. Early on in his first term, a strong majority of the public (72%) said news organizations were being fair to the Clinton administration while only 17% saw them as unfair. By the spring of 1994, 36% thought the press was being unfair to Clinton, and by September, 1998 that number had risen to 40%.
Not surprisingly, the partisan gap on this question is substantial. Only 26% of Republicans believe Bush is being treated fairly by the news media, fully 65% say he’s being treated unfairly. Among Democrats, 75% think news organizations are being fair to Bush while 13% say they are being unfair. Independents are squarely in the middle: 52% see the media as fair to Bush, 33% say they are unfair.
The opinions of Republicans have changed dramatically over the course of Bush’s presidency. In July 2003, Republicans believed on balance that the media was being fair to Bush – 50% vs. 38% who said unfair. Independents have also become more critical of press coverage of Bush over the past four years. The opinions of Democrats have remained much more stable.
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.