February 27, 2008

NY Times’ McCain Story Draws Public Interest – And Disapproval

Beef Recall and Failing Satellite Attract Attention

Summary of Findings

An overwhelming majority of Americans (81%) are aware of news reports that John McCain may have had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist several years ago. About half (48%) of the public has heard a lot about this story, which first appeared in the New York Times late last week. Another 33% has heard at least a little about the story. By a nearly two-to-one margin those who have heard about the McCain story think the New York Times was wrong to publish it — 57% say the Times did the wrong thing in publishing the story, 33% say the paper did the right thing.

Republicans are only slightly more likely than Democrats to have heard about the McCain story (87% of Republicans have heard at least a little compared with 80% of Democrats). However, partisan views on the role of the New York Times differ dramatically. By a 75% to 16% margin Republicans who are aware of the story say the Times did the wrong thing by publishing it. Democrats are evenly split on the issue — 47% say the Times was wrong, 45% say the paper was right. Independents have a more negative view of the Times’ decision (55% wrong, 33% right).

Two other negative campaign news stories, both relating to Barack Obama, also gained wide recognition from the public. Roughly three-quarters of the public heard about reports that Obama may have plagiarized lines from a speech by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Four-in-ten (39%) heard a lot about this story, 35% heard at least a little. Fully 60% of the public heard about Michelle Obama’s comment that this is the first time in her adult life that she has been really proud of her country (35% heard a lot, 25% heard a little). Republicans, Democrats and independents report hearing about these stories in roughly equal proportions.

Nonetheless, much of the news about Obama last week was positive and focused on his win in the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index. Among the major candidates still in the presidential race, Obama was the leading newsmaker of the week. The Illinois Senator has clearly become the most visible candidate in the eyes of the public. Fully 53% named him as the candidate they had heard the most about in the news lately, only 23% named Clinton. Earlier this month, Obama led Clinton by a much narrower margin in terms of visibility (38% named Obama the week of Feb. 4-10 while 31% named Clinton). In spite of a substantial amount of news coverage of his campaign last week, only 13% named the McCain as the candidate they had heard the most about lately.

Who Gets Campaign News Where?

Interest in news about the campaign more generally remains extremely high. Last week 42% of the public followed campaign news very closely. This is down only marginally from the previous week and much higher than comparable points in previous presidential elections. The dominant sources for campaign news are network and cable television news. Fully 57% of Americans say they regularly get information about the presidential campaign from network TV news and 52% say the same about cable news. By comparison only 42% say they regularly get campaign news from newspapers. Roughly a third (34%) regularly access campaign news on the internet.

Reliance on campaign news sources differs dramatically across age groups. Older Americans are much more likely than younger ones to rely on newspapers for campaign news. Fully 56% of those ages 50 and older regularly get campaign news from newspapers. This compares with only 32% of those under age 50. Younger people are more apt to get their campaign news from the internet. Among those under age 50, 41% regularly get campaign news from the internet. Only 24% of those ages 50 and older turn to the internet for campaign news. The differences in reliance on cable and network television are narrower, with older people somewhat more likely than their younger counterparts to use these sources for campaign news.

In terms of how informative people find various campaign news sources, cable news, network news and the internet are judged about equally. Among those who get campaign news from cable TV regularly or sometimes, 37% say they learn a great deal from the coverage. Roughly the same proportion gives network news high marks for its coverage: 35% of those who get campaign news from the networks say they learn a great deal. And among those who get campaign news from the internet, 36% say they learn a great deal. Newspapers don’t fare quite as well as these other sources: 31% of those who get campaign news from newspapers say they learn a great deal.

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 Feb. 18-24 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected Feb. 22-25 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

High Interest in Beef Recall and Failing Satellite

Beyond the campaign, two news stories drew large audiences last week. Nearly one-in-three Americans (29%) paid very close attention to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recall of over 100 million pounds of frozen beef. Attention to this story was on par with other recent product recalls such as those affecting Chinese toys and other products last summer and fall and contaminated pet food last spring. Roughly one-in-ten (11%) said this was the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week.

A quarter of Americans (26%) paid very close attention to the U.S. Navy’s successful interception of a failing spy satellite. Another 34% followed this story fairly closely.

Two dramatic international news stories attracted relatively little interest from the public. Fewer than one-in-five (18%) Americans paid very close attention to Fidel Castro’s resignation as president of Cuba. The national news media devoted 6% of its overall coverage to this story. Even fewer Americans closely followed violence at the U.S. embassy in Serbia in the wake of Kosovo declaring its independence — 14% followed this story very closely. The news media devoted 7% of its coverage to this story.

Interest in events in Pakistan has fallen significantly in recent weeks. Only 9% of the public followed the parliamentary elections in which Pervez Musharaff’s ruling party lost political control.

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.