October 4, 2007

Ahmadinejad Visit Draws Large Audience

Burma Protests Barely Register with Public

Summary of Findings

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the U.S. drew a large news audience last week. Aside from the Iraq war it was the most closely followed news story, with 23% of the public following the story very closely, and 14% listing it as the single news story they followed most closely. Ahmadinejad’s visit, as well as broader issues relating to U.S.-Iranian relations, was the most heavily covered news story of the week. Fully 13% of the national newshole was devoted to this story.

The week’s other major international story, aside from the Iraq war, drew a much smaller news audience. Only 13% of the public paid very close attention to pro-democracy protests by Buddhist monks in Burma, 5% listed this as their most closely followed story. The Burma story received a substantial amount of news coverage: 8% of the national newshole focused on this story making it the third most heavily covered story of the week (and the top story on network TV news).

Democrats paid somewhat more attention than Republicans to the protests. College graduates were much more likely than those without a college degree to be paying at least fairly close attention to the story (54% vs. 32% followed very or fairly closely).

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 September 23-28 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected September 28 — October 1 from a nationally representative sample of 1,018 adults.

Republicans Tuning Out the Campaign

Interest in the 2008 presidential campaign remained steady last week: 21% of the public followed campaign news very closely and 12% listed this as their most closely followed story. As has been the case throughout most of the year, Democrats paid closer attention to the campaign than did Republicans. This past week, the gap was particularly large with 30% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans paying very close attention to campaign news.

The agreement between General Motors and the United Auto Workers union that ended a two-day strike by UAW workers drew a modest amount of interest (14% followed the story very closely and 9% listed it as their most closely followed story). In the Midwest, which has been hardest hit by the decline of the American auto industry, the story was more dominant. Fully 16% of Midwesterners listed the GM-UAW deal as the story they followed most closely last week.

The amount of coverage devoted to the Iraq war and particularly the policy debate has fluctuated significantly in recent months, while public interest in the story has remained fairly consistent. Coverage peaked during the week of September 9 when General David Petraeus delivered his status report on the war. That week 36% of the national news was devoted to the policy debate. The following week coverage of the debate dropped off to 5% of the overall newshole, and this past week it dropped even further to 4%. Last week 22% of the public followed the Iraq policy debate very closely and 6% listed this as their top story.

Consistently, the public has expressed greater interest in the situation in Iraq than in the policy debate. This past week was no exception: 30% followed events in Iraq very closely and 24% listed this as their most closely followed story.

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.