January 30, 2008

Campaign and Economy Dominate News Interest

Interest in Iraq at All-Time Low

Summary of Findings

The presidential campaign continued to dominate national news coverage last week, and the public remained highly engaged in the ongoing contest. Nearly 40% of the national newshole was devoted to the campaign, and 36% of the public listed the campaign as the single news story they were following more closely than any other.

Democratic frontrunners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the most prominent figures in the news last week. When asked to name the person they had heard the most about in the news lately, 24% of the public named Obama and 23% named Clinton. In a week when he proposed a major economic stimulus plan, just 5% of Americans named George Bush as the person they had heard the most about. About twice as many (11%) named Hollywood actor Heath Ledger, who died last week.

Major economic news also drew heavy coverage and widespread interest last week. In all, the national news media devoted 19% of its coverage to the economy; 10% of the coverage was focused on Bush’s economic stimulus plan and 5% was focused on major fluctuations in the stock market. For its part, the public was somewhat more interested in stock market news than in the stimulus plan. Overall, 29% of Americans followed stock market news very closely and 14% listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. By comparison, 24% say they followed news about the stimulus package very closely, and 11% listed this as their most closely followed story.

People with higher household incomes paid the closest attention to stock market news: 46% of those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or higher paid very close attention to news about the stock market. While the stimulus plan was aimed in large part at lower and middle income Americans, those in the highest income category were among the most likely to follow this story as well.

Falling Interest in Iraq War

Interest in the Iraq war fell to an all-time low last week with 23% of Americans following news about Iraq very closely. Only 6% of the public listed the situation in Iraq as the story they were following most closely making it the fifth most closely followed story of the week.

Attentiveness to the Iraq war relative to other top news stories has fallen dramatically in recent months. Throughout much of 2007, the war was consistently the most closely followed news story each week. It has not held that position since early October as the 2008 presidential campaign has become the dominant news story both in terms of interest and coverage. In recent weeks, media coverage of the war has been minimal. Last week the national media devoted only 2% of its overall coverage to the war.

Young Women Tune into Heath Ledger Story

The death of Hollywood actor Heath Ledger drew a considerable amount of news coverage and news interest. The national news media devoted 4% of its overall coverage to Ledger’s death — twice the amount of coverage devoted to either the situation in Iraq or the events along the Egyptian border. The bulk of the Ledger coverage was on network and cable TV news.

As is often the case with tabloid stories, younger women made up the core audience for this story. One-in-five women under age 50 listed Ledger’s death as the story they followed most closely last week. This compares with only 11% of both men under 50 and women over 50 and just 2% of men 50 and older.

Overall the public thinks the Ledger story was overcovered: 52% say news organizations gave too much coverage to this story. Just 5% say the story received too little coverage and 37% think the amount of coverage was about right.

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 Jan. 21-27 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected Jan. 25-28 from a nationally representative sample of 1,010 adults.

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.