May 3, 2007

Public Dissatisfied With Iraq Debate Coverage

Neither Bush nor Democrats Making Their Case

Summary of Findings

The debate over future Iraq war policy took center stage in Washington and in the national news last week. However, public interest in the story was modest at best as Americans expressed frustration with the quality of the debate and the clarity of the competing arguments. Only 18% of the public paid very close attention to the debate over U.S. policy in Iraq, and 7% said it was the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. In contrast, the policy debate was the most heavily covered news story of the week, filling up 15% of the overall newshole. In spite of the media’s focus on the policy debate, the public remains more interested in the events on the ground in Iraq.

The public’s lack of engagement in the policy debate may be related to a sense of frustration about how the debate has been framed. Among those who have been paying at least some attention to news about Iraq policy, less than one-third (32%) think that news organizations are doing an excellent or good job explaining the current debate over the war funding bill. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say news organizations are doing only a fair or poor job explaining the debate.

George Bush and the Democratic leaders in Congress receive equally low marks from the public for framing their respective positions on the war funding bill. Only 34% of those who are following the policy debate say Bush has done an excellent or good job explaining his position on the war funding bill, while 64% say he has done a fair or poor job. The Democratic leaders in Congress get only slightly higher ratings: 39% say they’ve done an excellent or good job explaining their position on the bill, and 57% say they’ve done a fair or poor job.

Not surprisingly, there are sharp partisan differences on these ratings, with Republicans more likely to praise Bush and Democrats more supportive of their leadership in Congress. Even given these predictable party gaps, sizeable minorities of Republicans and Democrats fault their own party for its lack of clarity in the debate. More than four-in-ten Republicans (41%) who are paying at least some attention to the Iraq policy debate say Bush has done a fair or poor job explaining his position on the war funding bill, and 40% of Democrats give their party leaders in Congress similarly low marks. Independents are especially critical of both parties: 65% say Bush has done a fair or poor job explaining his position and nearly as many (63%) say the Democratic leaders have done a fair or poor job.

Democrats have the most positive view of how the media has done in explaining the war funding debate. Among those who are following the issue, 43% of Democrats say the media has done an excellent or good job, compared to 28% of Republicans and 25% of Independents.

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.

Interest in Virginia Tech Story Still High

While the media’s top story last week was the Iraq policy debate, the public remained focused on the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech University. Fully 43% of Americans followed news about the shootings very closely, and 46% said this was the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. News coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings fell off dramatically from the previous week: 7% of the news coverage across all media sectors was devoted to the story last week, compared to 51% the week the shootings took place.

The second most closely followed news story, far behind the shootings, was the situation in Iraq — 27% of the public followed events in Iraq very closely and 15% said this was the news story they followed more closely than any other last week. Over the past month, the public has consistently expressed greater interest in the war itself than in the policy debate

Interest in the 2008 presidential campaign has fallen off somewhat in recent weeks. In spite of two significant campaign-related events — John McCain’s official announcement that he is a candidate for the Republican nomination and the Democratic candidates’ debate in South Carolina — only 14% of the public paid very close attention last week to news about the campaign. Throughout much of this year, close to one-quarter of the public has been following the campaign very closely. Media coverage of the campaign was substantial last week making up 10% of the overall newshole.

A record-setting week on Wall Street didn’t attract a great deal of public attention. Only 11% of the public followed news about the stock market very closely, 4% said this was the news story they followed most closely. The public paid closer attention two months ago when stocks tumbled over 400 points (21% followed the story very closely during the last week of February). This past week the story was of greater interest to higher income Americans — fully 43% of those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or higher followed the story very or fairly closely.

The congressional hearing into the circumstances surrounding the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the capture of Jessica Lynch in Iraq attracted modest public interest: 16% of the public followed this story very closely and another 25% paid fairly close attention. Democrats followed the story somewhat closer than Republicans. This story received relatively little newspaper or radio coverage. However, it was a top five story among online sources and network and cable TV news shows.

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.