March 6, 2008

Just 28% Say Media Going Easy on Obama

Candidates' Foreign Policy Views Not Widely Known

But there may be more urgency to the public’s plea in this election cycle than in the past. Fewer than half the public (40%) know a lot or a fair amount about Democratic front runner Barack Obama’s foreign policy positions. This compares with 54% who know at least a fair amount about Hillary Clinton’s positions on foreign policy and 52% who know as much about John McCain’s positions.

Even among those who have been following campaign news very closely, only a bare majority (54%) say they know a lot or a fair amount about Obama’s foreign policy positions. Fully a quarter say they know very little. By comparison, 71% of those who are paying very close attention to campaign news know a lot or a fair amount about Clinton’s positions on foreign policy and nearly as many (67%) know at least a fair amount about McCain’s positions. Democrats know more about Clinton’s positions on foreign policy than they do about Obama’s positions. More than six-in-ten Democrats or independents who lean Democratic (63%) know a lot or a fair amount about Clinton’s foreign policy positions, while 50% know a lot or a fair amount about Obama’s positions. Among Republicans, 61% know a lot or a fair amount about McCain’s positions on foreign policy.

Public Wants More Issue Coverage

Democrats, Republicans and independents are in agreement that the media should focus more on issues – both foreign and domestic – in covering the presidential campaign. Among both Democrats and Republicans, 77% would like to see more coverage of foreign policy issues such as the Iraq war, the war on terror and world poverty; 73% of independents say the same. Similarly, 83% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 77% of independents would like to see more coverage of domestic issues such as health care, the economy and taxes.

Democrats and Republicans differ over how much coverage should be devoted to other aspects of the campaign. While the public overall would like to see less coverage of the religious beliefs of the candidates, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say they’d like to see more of this type of coverage (50% of Republicans would like to see more compared with 27% of Democrats). Republicans are also somewhat more likely than Democrats to want more coverage of the candidates’ personal backgrounds and experiences (62% of Republicans vs. 52% of Democrats).

While a majority of the public (53%) would like to see less coverage of which candidate is leading in the latest polls, Democrats are less critical of this aspect of campaign coverage than are Republicans. While 43% of Democrats say the press should spend more time reporting on the polls, only 28% of Republicans share this view. Fully 62% of Republicans say the press should devote less time to the polls. Views on this topic have shifted somewhat since the fall. In late-September, the public was evenly divided over whether the press should spend more or less time reporting on the horse race (42% more vs. 45% less). Now the balance has clearly shifted in favor of less coverage.

Has the Press been too easy on Obama?

While the public would like to see more coverage of the issues, most Americans are not critical of the tone of the campaign coverage. Majorities continue to say the press has been fair in the way it has covered the three remaining major candidates. Complaints from the Clinton campaign and others that the media has been too easy on Obama seem to have had a limited impact on public opinion. Fully 58% of the public say the press has been fair in the way it has covered Obama’s campaign; 28% say the press has been too easy on the Illinois senator – up slightly from 23% in early February. The public is somewhat more critical of the way the press has covered the Clinton campaign, 18% say the press has been too tough on Clinton while only 8% say the same about coverage of Obama. Even so, 58% say the press has been fair to Clinton. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say the McCain campaign has gotten fair treatment from the press. Equal percentages (14%) say the press has been either too easy or too tough on McCain.

Among Democrats and independents who lean Democratic, 18% say the press has been too easy on Obama, while 25% say the press has been too tough on Clinton. A large majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (63%) say the press has been fair in its coverage of McCain. However, the percentage believing the press has been too tough on McCain has increased significantly in recent weeks (from 12% to 22%), in the wake of the New York Times article about McCain’s relationship with a female lobbyist. Only 9% of Republicans now say the press has been too easy on the Arizona senator (down from 19% in early February).

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. 25 – March 2 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected Feb. 29 – March 3 from a nationally representative sample of 1,010 adults.

Campaign Dominates, Iraq Fades from News Agenda

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, since the beginning of October, 2007, the presidential campaign has been the most heavily covered news story each week with only two exceptions: the California wildfires in late-October and the turmoil in Pakistan in early November. The massive amount of coverage devoted to the campaign has not been lost on the public. When asked in an open-ended format to name the first story that comes to mind when thinking about what’s been in the news lately, 45% of the public point to the presidential campaign. Another 9% say politics. In November, 2007, only 10% volunteered the campaign. The Iraq war, which dominated the news agenda and the public consciousness a year ago, is no longer at the forefront of Americans’ minds. Only 5% name the war as the story that comes to mind when they think about what’s been in the news lately. This is down from 16% in November, 2007 and 55% in January, 2007. The economy is now mentioned by 14% of the public, up from 4% in the fall.

For its part, the national news media devoted 38% of its coverage to the presidential campaign last week. More than four-in-ten Americans (43%) paid very close attention to the campaign last week, and 47% listed this as the single news story they were following more closely than any other.

The condition of the U.S. economy was the second most closely followed news story last week: 38% followed this story very closely and 17% listed this as their most close
ly followed story. Interest in economic news is significantly higher now than it was in the fall of 2007.

Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) followed news about the Iraq war very closely; 12% listed Iraq as their most closely followed story. The national news media devoted 3% of its overall coverage to Iraq. In other foreign news, 16% paid very close attention to news that Britain’s Prince Harry had been fighting in the war in Afghanistan. The media devoted 3% of its coverage for the entire week to this late-breaking story.

The public expressed relatively little interest in the recent Academy Awards ceremony. Only 7% followed the Oscars very closely, another 12% paid fairly close attention. Fully 61% did not follow the awards at all, up significantly from 47% in 1990.

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.