June 28, 2007

Iraq Dominates News Landscape in First Six Months of 2007

Summary of Findings

In the first six months of 2007, the Iraq war has captivated the public’s interest and eclipsed most of the year’s other major news stories, including the 2008 presidential election, two major Washington political scandals, and news from other international trouble spots. Iraq has been the most closely followed news story in 18 of the 22 weeks that Pew has been tracking public attentiveness to the news.

The only stories this year that have drawn greater public interest than the war were the Virginia Tech shootings in April and rising gas prices at the end of May. In addition, the release in early April of 15 British sailors and marines who were held captive by the Iranian government drew slightly more interest than the war to become that week’s most closely followed news story.

On average, about a third of Americans say they follow news about the Iraq war very closely each week. Last week, 30% followed the current situation and events in Iraq very closely, and 26% listed this as the single news story they were following more closely than any other. Democrats have consistently paid closer attention than Republicans to news about Iraq. Last week, 35% of Democrats followed news about Iraq very closely, compared to 28% of both Republicans and Independents.

The Iraq war also has been the most heavily covered news story this year. During the first three months of 2007, more than 20% of the national newshole was devoted to Iraq, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The war in Iraq has been among the five most covered news stories during every week this year. Media coverage of Iraq has focused more often on the policy debate over the war, as opposed to events on the ground in Iraq. Public interest, on the other hand, has been much more focused on events in Iraq.

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 the most recent week, data relating to news coverage was collected from June 17-22, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected June 22-25 from a nationally representative sample of 1,017 adults.

Iraq Knowledge

By and large, the public understands the broad contours of the situation in Iraq. Fully two-thirds know that the number of U.S. casualties so far this year is higher than the number of casualties during the same period last year. Nearly as many (61%) know that the number of U.S. troops serving in Iraq has gone up in recent months (only 5% think the troop level has gone down). A plurality of the public (49%) knows that approximately 3,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the start of the war; 12% think that number is higher and 29% think it is lower.

The public is less clear regarding some other specifics about the war. Roughly four-in-ten (41%) are aware that the Shia have the largest population in Iraq; 30% say the Sunnis are the largest group and 8% named the Kurds. About the same number could correctly recall the year in which the United States invaded Iraq: 38% know it was 2003, while nearly as many (35%) think the war began in 2002. In addition, 30% could correctly identify Gen. David Petraeus as the U.S. Commander in Iraq, and slightly fewer (27%) know that Nouri al-Maliki is the Prime Minister of Iraq.

Knowledge of both the general picture in Iraq and the specific details varies by gender, education and attentiveness to the story. Men are generally more knowledgeable than women about the war, though the differences are not dramatic. College graduates are better informed than those without a college degree, and this is particularly true on the more specific details about the war, such as the names of Gen. Petraeus and Prime Minister al-Maliki.

Those who are following news about Iraq very closely tend to know more about the war than those who are not paying as close attention. Even so, those who are paying at least fairly close attention are relatively well-informed.

While more Democrats than Republicans have paid close attention to news about Iraq, there are few major differences across party lines when it comes to basic knowledge about the war. One area where impressions clearly differ is on the question of whether U.S. military casualties have been higher or lower this year compared to a comparable period last year. Fully 78% of Democrats say casualties are higher this year; fewer independents (62%) and Republicans (59%) know this. In addition, Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to remember when the war started, while Republicans are more likely than Democrats to be able to identify Gen. Petraeus.

Beyond Iraq: Last Week’s Other Top Stories

While events in Iraq dominated public interest last week, news about a pregnant Ohio woman, Jessie Davis, who was missing and later found dead drew a large audience. Nearly a quarter of the public (23%) followed the Davis story very closely and the same percentage said this was the story they followed most closely — making it the second most closely followed story for the week.

Davis’s disappearance and murder drew much greater interest among women than men. It was the top story for women overall (31% of women listed this as their top story, while 22% listed Iraq). By contrast, men were much more focused on Iraq. Just 15% of men listed the Davis murder as their top story of the week, while twice as many (30%) cited Iraq. Overall, the national news media devoted 5% of its coverage to the Davis story, making it the week’s fourth most heavily covered story (behind the 2008 campaign, the situation in Iraq, and the conflict between rival Palestinian groups). However, cable news devoted 15% of the newshole to the Davis story, making it the second most heavily covered story on cable for the week.

While there was less media coverage of the immigration debate last week than the previous week, public interest remained consistent. Roughly a quarter of the public (24%) followed news about immigration very closely, and 13% listed this as their most closely followed story.

The 2008 presidential campaign was the most heavily covered news story last week — 11% of the overall newshole was devoted to campaign news. Much of the coverage was driven by speculation that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg might join the race as an independent candidate. Public interest in the campaign was largely unchanged from the previous week: 18% followed campaign news very closely and 6% said this was the story they followed most closely. Democrats paid closer attention to the campaign than did Republicans (24% vs. 18% followed very closely). In spite of the Bloomberg story and its implications, independents paid even less attention to campaign news (13% followed very closely).

President Bush’s veto last week of a bill that would have expanded federally funded stem cell research — just the third veto of his presidency — received relatively little media coverage. Only 1% of the overall newshole was devoted to this story. Almost one-in-five (19%) Americans followed this story very closely, and 6% listed it as their most closely followed story of the week. Equal proportions of Republicans, Democrats and Independents tracked the story very closely.

The ongoing conflict between rival factions in the Palestinian territories continued to receive a substantial amount of media coverage (7% of the overall newshole for the week). Roughly one-in-five Americans (19%) followed the story very closely and 4% listed it as their most closely followed story of the week.

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.