November 9, 2007

Iraq News: Less Dominant, Still Important

Public Wants More Coverage of U.S. Troops

Summary of Findings

News about the Iraq war does not dominate the public’s consciousness nearly as much as it did last winter. Currently, just 16% of Americans name the Iraq war as the news story that first comes to mind when asked what has been in the news lately. In December and January, a period when U.S. policy toward Iraq and President Bush’s troop surge drew extensive news coverage, far greater numbers named the Iraq war as the first story that came to mind.

More generally, public interest in news about the situation in Iraq is now less than it was earlier this year or in 2006. Since June, about 30% of the public, on average, said they have followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely. In 2006 and the first two months of this year, about 40% on average paid very close attention to Iraq news.

Nonetheless, Iraq remains a major news story in the public’s view. For 29 of the past 41 weeks, it has been the leading story in the weekly News Interest Index. Moreover, Iraq is consistently rated as the most important problem facing the nation. In an early October survey by the Gallup Organization, 33% cited the situation in Iraq as the most important problem facing the nation, far more than named any other issue. That number is down somewhat from last winter, although consistent with measures from the spring and summer.

News coverage of Iraq, like public interest in the situation there, is now significantly less than it was at the start of the year. In January, roughly a quarter of the overall newshole (26%) in newspapers, TV newscasts, websites and radio was devoted to news about Iraq. In October, the war received only half as much coverage on average (13%), according to data compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism‘s News Coverage Index.

The diminished press coverage of Iraq is an important factor in the falloff in news interest, given that most Americans say they “come across” war news without looking for it, rather than seeking out news about the Iraq war. Overall, 75% of the public says they come across news about the war when they are not actively seeking it out, compared with just 20% who say they go looking for war news.

While public interest in the Iraq war has declined since the beginning of the year, a growing number of Americans say news organizations are devoting too little, rather than too much, coverage to the war. A third of Americans say news organizations are undercovering the war, a 10-point increase since June (23%). In particular, the public believes that the challenges and experiences of U.S. soldiers — both while serving in Iraq and after returning to the United States — are receiving too little news coverage.

Fully 63% say that “the challenges faced by some U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq” have received too little news coverage; about the same number (61%) say that reports about soldiers’ personal experiences have been undercovered. A majority (52%) also says that efforts to improve conditions in Iraq are getting too little coverage.

Smaller pluralities believe news organizations have focused too little on ground troops in action in Iraq (47%), Iraqi civilian casualties (46%) and plans for ending the war (45%).

There are some aspects of the war that sizable minorities believe are overcovered. Three-in-ten say the press has given too much coverage to how much the war costs, while about the same number (29%) says that anti-war sentiment has been overcovered. However, even on those stories, as many or more say the press has provided too little coverage as say they have been overcovered.

Overall evaluations of press coverage of the Iraq war remain fairly negative. While 44% say the press has done an excellent or good job covering the war, a majority (53%) say the press has done only a fair or poor job (with nearly a quarter saying poor). These press ratings have remained relatively stable throughout this year, though they are much lower than the ratings the press received in the early months of the war.

In late March and early April 2003, during the combat phase of the war, 78% of the public said the press was doing an excellent or good job covering the war in Iraq, only 19% said they were doing a fair or poor job. Currently, Republicans are slightly more critical than Democrats of the job the press is doing (57% of Republicans say the press is doing a fair or poor job vs. 50% of Democrats).

Iraq Interest Over Time

Public interest in the Iraq war peaked during the conflict’s early phase in the spring of 2003, and began to decline after the Pentagon declared an end to major combat operations. For the year in 2003, 52% of Americans followed news from Iraq very closely on average.

Overall interest fell to 44% in 2004, on average, with the highest level of interest measured in April and May of that year, amid the insurgency in Fallujah and reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib (54% very closely). Throughout 2005 and 2006, public attentiveness to the situation in Iraq fluctuated in response to news events, but on average about four-in-ten followed the story very closely in both years.

In the first 10 months of 2007, public interest in Iraq has averaged 33% in the weekly News Interest Index. Interest was significantly greater during January, when Bush announced a major troop increase in Iraq, than it has been in recent weeks. In the current survey, 31% say they are following news about the situation in Iraq very closely, while 20% named it as the story they followed most closely last week.

Although interest in Iraq news has declined this year, it has been the top story in the weekly News Interest Index far more often than any other story. Last week, however, about as many people named the 2008 election as cited the Iraq war as the story they followed most closely (22% vs. 20%). A week earlier, the California wildfires were the dominant story in terms of news interest: roughly four times as many named the wildfires as the week’s top story as cited the war in Iraq (46% vs. 12%).

For the past few years, there has been a modest but consistent partisan gap in news interest about the war. The differences in the current survey are fairly typical in this regard: 35% of Democrats say they have followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely, compared with 31% of independents and 27% of Republicans.

Tracking News Coverage

News coverage of Iraq during 2007 also was higher in January than it has been for most of the period since then. In January, news organizations devoted 26% of the overall newshole to three main elements of the Iraq story — the Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and news about the homefront — according to data collected by the Project for Excellence in Journalism for its News Coverage Index.

The amount of time devoted to Iraq news declined markedly over the spring and summer. In both June and August, for instance, just 11% of the total newshole on average was spent on Iraq coverage, about half of the amount of coverage, or less, that news organizations devoted to Iraq during the first three months of 2007.

Iraq coverage increased sharply in September as news organizations focused extensively on Gen. David Petraeus’ long-awaited progress report on Iraq. That month, nearly a quarter of the newshole (23%) was devoted to Iraq news on average; during the week of Petraeus’ testimony before Congress (Sept. 9-14), fully 36% of news coverage was about the Iraq policy debate.

Since then, however, news coverage of Iraq has declined to about the same levels as in the summer. In October, just 13% of all coverage was devoted to Iraq news, about half the amount from just a month earlier (23%).

The track of news coverage for the year shows that the Iraq policy debate has consistently received more coverage than have events in Iraq, according to the PEJ data. Indeed, during the two months in which news organizations have provided the greatest amount of overall news coverage of Iraq — January and September — the bulk of that coverage has been focused on the policy debate rather than on events in Iraq. In January, of the 26% of news coverage on Iraq, 18% was focused on the policy debate, while just 6% of the coverage was of news about events in Iraq. That was the case in September as well, when news organizations devoted more than twice as much coverage to the Iraq policy debate than to events in Iraq (16% vs. 6%).

Despite this imbalance in the coverage, the public has consistently expressed greater interest in news about events in Iraq than it has about the policy debate in Washington. Even in mid-September, shortly after Petraeus delivered his testimony, more Americans said they were following events in Iraq very closely than said the same about Petraeus’ report (31% vs. 25%).

The only point this year when the public showed a great deal of interest in the Washington policy debate was in mid-January, shortly after Bush’s announcement that he was sending more troops in Iraq (40% very closely). Even then, however, as many or more people said they were following news about events in Iraq very closely.

Public Wants to Hear the Soldiers’ Stories

News coverage about the Iraq homefront — stories about returning soldiers and their families and the treatment of injured troops — is overshadowed by the amount of coverage of both the Iraq policy debate and events in Iraq. However, these clearly are subjects the public wants to hear more about. Fully 63% say they think the press is giving too little coverage to the challenges faced by some U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq. Nearly as many (61%) say the press is giving too little coverage to reports about the personal experiences of soldiers.

The public’s interest in conditions facing returning soldiers was evident in the response to the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in March of this year. At the height of the Walter Reed story, 31% of the public said they followed this story very closely. Perhaps more striking, 24% volunteered the Walter Reed scandal as the story of the week that received too little coverage, far more than the number citing any other of that week’s stories (See “Public Tunes In To Walter Reed Story,” March 15, 2007).

The idea that news about U.S. troops is getting too little coverage also represents a rare point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans Six-in-ten Democrats and 63% of Republicans say the press has given too little coverage to the personal experiences of soldiers. Similarly, 65% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans say the challenges facing returning soldiers have received too little coverage.

But in several other areas of coverage — including stories about anti-war sentiment, the cost of the war, U.S. troop casualties, Iraqi casualties and plans for ending U.S. involvement in Iraq — there are vast partisan differences in views of the amount of news coverage. In each of these cases, far more Democrats than Republicans say news organizations are giving the issue too little coverage.

There also is a partisan gap in opinions about the amount of coverage devoted to efforts to improving conditions in Iraq. But here, more Republicans than Democrats want to see more coverage: 60% of Republicans say the press is giving too little attention to efforts to improve conditions in Iraq, compared with 49% of Democrats.

Many Want More Iraq Coverage

On balance, the public believes that news organizations are giving the right amount of coverage to the war generally. However, the number of people saying the press gives the war too little coverage has increased since June.

Overall, 43% say that news organizations are giving the right amount of coverage to the war in Iraq, while 33% think they are giving the war too little coverage, and 18% say news organizations have given the war too much coverage.

Currently, nearly twice as many say the war is being undercovered as say it is being overcovered (33% vs. 18%). In June, as many people said that news organizations were giving the war too much coverage as said the war was being undercovered (23% each).

Republicans and Democrats are in agreement over the amount of coverage the media is devoting to Iraq. While a plurality of both groups says news organizations are giving the right amount of coverage to the war in Iraq, growing minorities say the press is paying too little attention to the war. More than a third of Republicans (34%) and Democrats (35%) express this view.

Less Emotionally Involved in Iraq News?

More than four-in-ten Americans (44%) say that the people they know are becoming less emotionally involved in news from Iraq than they once were. That represents a modest increase since April 2006 in the percentage expressing this view (37%), though the current measure is identical to June 2005.

However, the impression that people may be disengaging from the war has increased over the long term. In March 2004, only about a quarter (26%) said people they knew had become less emotionally involved with news about the war.

Internet News Audience More Critical

In general, people rely on the same sources for news about the war as for news about other subjects. Fully 60% say television news their main source for information about Iraq, with 32% relying on cable news and 28% network news.

Roughly one-in-six Americans (16%) say they mostly rely on the internet for news about the Iraq war, which is greater than the numbers who mostly rely on either newspapers (11%) or the radio (9%). Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) younger than 30 rely mostly on the internet, more than three times the number citing newspapers as the main source for war news (8%).

Overall, 44% of the public says that press coverage of the war has been excellent or good, while more than half (53%) give the press an only fair or poor rating. Those who rely most on the internet for news about Iraq are the most critical of the press. About two-thirds (68%) of those who name the internet as their main source of war news say that press coverage has been only fair or poor. By contrast, those who rely on network news give the highest ratings to press coverage of the war (55% excellent/good).

Those who rely primarily on the internet for news about Iraq also are more likely than other news audiences to say that the press is devoting too little coverage to the war. About four-in-ten (41%) of those who rely on the internet for Iraq new say that news organizations are giving too little coverage to the conflict; that compares with 34% of those who cite cable news as their main source, and smaller proportions of other news audiences.

Awareness of U.S. Casualties

When asked whether the number of American military casualties in October were higher, lower or about equal compared with previous months, 41% of the public correctly answered that the number of U.S. troops deaths had declined. According to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a private research group, 38 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq in October, the lowest total for any month this year. (The overall U.S. death toll for the year, which currently stands at more than 850, is higher than for any year since the war began.)

About half of Republicans (51%) knew that troop deaths had declined in October, compared with 43% of independents and 33% of Democrats. As might be expected, those who follow Iraq news very closely are more likely than those who have paid less attention to Iraq news to know that U.S. military casaulties had declined.

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.