March 29, 2007

Attorney Firings: Important but Not Interesting

Summary of Findings

Public interest in the Iraq war remained high last week as the country marked the fourth anniversary of the conflict, and the House of Representatives passed a controversial war funding bill. At the same time the fallout from the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department failed to gain much traction with the public, in spite of intense media coverage of the story.

Beyond Iraq, the public divided its attention fairy evenly among the other top stories of the week – a missing Boy Scout found alive in North Carolina, news about the 2008 presidential campaign, medical care for wounded Iraq war veterans, and the U.S. attorney story. The third week into the U.S. attorney story, public interest increased only marginally, and the gap between coverage of the story and public attentiveness remained substantial. Only 20% of the public paid very close attention to news about the firings, and 8% said it was the story they followed most closely (unchanged from last week). Fully 18% of news coverage for the week was devoted to this story.

The public is divided over whether the story is interesting or boring (48% vs. 46%). Even so, a solid majority (68%) says the issue is important to the country. Overall, this story is viewed as somewhat more significant than the recent Scooter Libby trial – 59% said that was important for the country.

There is a significant partisan gap over the importance of the story. While 80% of Democrats believe the story is important for the country, only 60% of Republicans agree. Roughly two-thirds of independents view the issue as important. Democrats are also more likely to find the story interesting – 59% vs. 42% of Republicans. Independents are split on this matter – 46% interesting, 48% boring.

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.

Campaign News

One in five Americans paid very close attention to news about the 2008 candidates and 17% closely followed news about Elizabeth Edwards’ recurrence of cancer. Roughly one-in-ten Americans (9%) said they followed the campaign more closely than any other major news story, and another 7% said they followed the Edwards news most closely.

In what was otherwise a quiet week on the presidential campaign trail, 7% of the overall newshole was filled by campaign news. News about Edwards specifically made up 4% of the newshole. Women followed the Edwards announcement more closely than did men – 11% of women named this as their most closely followed story compared to 3% of men.

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.