May 9, 2007

Modest Coverage, Broad Interest in Pet Food Recall

Public Refocuses on Iraq

Summary of Findings

A story which received relatively little media coverage last week attracted a great deal of public interest. The recall of more than 100 brands of pet food due to possible contamination was the second most closely followed news story last week. Only the war in Iraq attracted more public interest. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) followed the pet food recall very closely, and 17% said it was the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. The national news media devoted 1% of its overall coverage to the pet food recall. The story was covered more heavily in newspapers (3%) than in other sectors.

With the Virginia Tech shootings falling off of the national news media’s agenda last week, the public shifted its focus back to the Iraq war. The situation in Iraq was the public’s most closely followed news story. Fully 38% followed news about events in Iraq very closely (up from 27% the previous week), and 28% said this was the story they followed most closely. During a week in which George Bush vetoed Congress’s war-funding bill, the Iraq policy debate also attracted a good deal of public interest: 30% followed the debate very closely (up from 18% the previous week) and 13% listed it as their most closely followed story. Media coverage of the war focused more on the policy debate than events on the ground.

The 2008 presidential campaign was the most heavily covered news story last week — making up 13% of the overall newshole. Nearly one quarter of the public (23%) followed campaign news very closely and 11% said it was the story they followed most closely last week. In spite of the GOP candidates’ May 3 debate, Democrats followed the campaign more closely than Republicans.

The release of George Tenet’s book about his experiences as CIA director attracted little public interest in spite of a significant amount of media coverage. Only 9% of the public followed news of Tenet’s book very closely and 3% listed this as their most closely followed story. The book release received relatively little coverage in newspapers or online news sources, but it was heavily covered on television and radio news. Nearly 10% of the coverage on network TV news (9%), cable TV news (8%) and radio news (9%) was devoted to Tenet’s book.

Fewer than one-in-ten Americans paid very close attention to Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the U.S. With its pomp and circumstance, the Queen’s visit was a bigger story on television news than in other sectors. The first two days of her visit alone accounted for 5% of the coverage on network TV news for the entire week.

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.

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.