November 21, 2007

Public’s News Interests: Campaign, War and Returning Troops

Summary of Findings

While the national news media focused heavily on the 2008 presidential campaign last week, the public divided its interest between the campaign and the Iraq war. More than one-fifth of the national newshole (21%) was devoted to the presidential campaign, while news about the war — including the situation in Iraq, returning U.S. troops and the Iraq policy debate — drew only about half as much coverage.

The campaign also was the public’s top story last week, with 20% citing the news about the presidential candidates as the story they followed most closely. But nearly as many (17%) mentioned the situation in Iraq or news about U.S. soldiers returning home from the war (15%) as their top stories. Notably, news organizations devoted just 3% of coverage to the Iraq home front, including stories about Iraq war veterans.

Fully half of Americans (52%) say U.S. troops returning from the war received too little coverage, by far the highest percentage for any of the week’s stories. This is consistent with a recent report by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which found that in general the public believes that news organizations devote too little coverage to the challenges and experiences of U.S. soldiers, both in Iraq and in the United States. (See “Iraq News Less Dominant: Still Important,” Nov. 9, 2007).

Interest in events on the ground in Iraq also remained high last week: 31% followed the war very closely and 17% listed it as their most closely followed news story. The public continues to express less interest in the debate in Washington over U.S. policy in Iraq than in the war itself. Fewer than one-in-four (23%) followed that story very closely and 6% listed it as their most closely followed story.

More than a quarter of the public (26%) paid very close attention to the presidential campaign last week. Interest in the campaign is up modestly from October when, on average, 20% of the public was following campaign news very closely. Democrats continue to pay closer attention than Republicans to the campaign. Last week 34% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans were following the campaign very closely. Only 21% of independents were paying very close attention.

News coverage of the campaign overshadowed most other major news stories last week particularly on cable TV and radio. Fully 37% of cable news and 35% of radio news was devoted to the campaign. Half of Americans (51%) believe that news organizations are devoting an appropriate amount of coverage to the campaign, but 32% say it is being overcovered while just 13% say the campaign is receiving too little news coverage.

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 November 11-16 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected November 16-19 from a nationally representative sample of 1,010 adults.

Still Only Modest Interest in Pakistan

News coverage of the situation in Pakistan declined dramatically last week from the previous week, while interest stayed about the same. The national media devoted 7% of its overall coverage to Pakistan, down from 17% the week before. One-in-five Americans followed the political instability in Pakistan very closely and 9% listed this as their most closely followed news story.

The public was relatively uninterested in the news that home run champion Barry Bonds had been indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to speculation about his use of steroids. Only 11% of the public paid very close attention to this story and another 21% said they were following it fairly closely. Interest in news about steroid use by major league baseball players was greater in late 2004 and early 2005. At that time, roughly one-in-five Americans were paying very close attention to reports of steroid use by some MLB players.

The Public’s News Appetite

Not only are Americans not particularly interested in the latest news about Barry Bonds, most believe this story is being overcovered. Fully 60% of the public say the Bonds indictment is receiving too much news coverage. Only 6% say Bonds’ indictment received too little coverage, while 25% say it is getting about the right amount of coverage.

By contrast, most Americans (52%) say news about returning U.S. soldiers from Iraq receive too little coverage; that compares with 40% who say the amount of coverage has been appropriate and just 4% who say this has been overcovered.

For each of last week’s other four top stories, a plurality of the public say news organizations have devoted about the right amount of coverage. About half each say that the situation in Pakistan (51%), the 2008 campaign (51%), the situation in Iraq (48%) and the Iraq policy debate (47%) are receiving the right amount of coverage.

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.

Cite this publication: “Public’s News Interests: Campaign, War and Returning Troops.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 21, 2007) http://www.people-press.org/2007/11/21/publics-news-interests-campaign-war-and-returning-troops/, accessed on July 23, 2014.