May 24, 2007

Iraq Dominates News Interest

Republicans Tune into Campaign News

Summary of Findings

While the national media divided its time last week among a host of major news stories, the public remained intensely focused on the situation in Iraq. Fully 36% of Americans paid very closely attention to events in Iraq and 35% said this was the news story they followed more closely than any other. Another 12% of the public listed the debate over Iraq policy as the story they followed most closely. News coverage of Iraq focused primarily on events on the ground, while the policy debate took a back seat. In previous weeks, the policy debate has received more media coverage than the situation in Iraq. However, dramatic events, including the capture of three American soldiers, altered the balance of coverage.

Interest in the 2008 presidential campaign has remained fairly consistent in recent weeks, even while the amount of coverage has fluctuated depending on campaign events and the demands of competing news stories. This past week 18% of the public followed campaign news very closely and another 31% followed it fairly closely. Roughly one-in-ten listed the campaign as their most closely followed story. For the first time since February, when Pew began tracking interest in the campaign, Republicans followed campaign news as closely as did Democrats (22% of both Republicans and Democrats paid very close attention to campaign news, as did 14% of independents). The news media had more to offer GOP loyalists this past week, as news of the Republican candidates outweighed news of the Democrats by a significant margin. Throughout most of the year, press coverage of the campaign has consistently focused more on the Democratic candidates.

In other news this week, fewer than one-in-ten Americans (8%) paid very close attention to DaimlerChrysler’s decision to sell Chrysler to a private equity firm. Another 20% paid fairly close attention to this story. Interest in news about Chrysler was somewhat higher in 1998 when the company initially merged with Daimler Benz.

One-in-ten Americans paid very close attention to Paul Wolfowitz’s decision to resign as World Bank president and 3% said it was their most closely followed story of the week. Overall, the Wolfowitz story accounted for 4% of the week’s news coverage. Republicans and Democrats followed the story in about equal proportions.

Only 7% of the public paid very close attention to news about the death of Reverend Jerry Falwell, 2% said this was the story they followed most closely. Falwell’s death received a substantial amount of news coverage: 6% of the news on all sectors was devoted to this story, and it was the third most heavily covered story on cable television news (surpassing coverage of events in Iraq). Republicans followed Falwell’s death more closely than did Democrats (34% of Republicans followed the story very or fairly closely vs. 25% of Democrats). And the story attracted more interest in the South than in other parts of the country.

Names in the News

When asked who they have heard the most about in the news lately, four-in-ten Americans (39%) name George W. Bush. Aside from the president, no single news figure emerges. Paris Hilton is a distant second place to Bush at 7%, and Anna Nicole Smith is named as often as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (3%). Alberto Gonzales is named by 2% of the public. Tony Blair, Britney Spears, Paul Wolfowitz and Jerry Falwell round out the top ten (all at 1%). GOP presidential hopefuls John McCain and Mitt Romney are also mentioned by 1% of the public.

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.