April 3, 2008

Clinton Controversy Heavily Covered but Obama Maintains Visibility Edge

Many Say Economic Reporting Too Negative

Summary of Findings

Hillary Clinton’s retraction of her claim that she came under sniper fire while visiting Bosnia in 1996 was one of the main campaign storylines last week. But the controversy over her statements did not resonate as widely as the furor over statements made by Barack Obama’s pastor earlier in March. Roughly four-in-ten Americans heard a lot about Clinton’s claim that she came under sniper fire, placing this story near the middle of the list of campaign news events this year in terms of overall visibility. By comparison, in Pew’s News Interest Index survey a week ago, 51% reported having heard “a lot” about Rev. Wright’s sermons.

While Clinton was the number one newsmaker of the week, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index, she continues to lag behind Obama in terms of public visibility. PEJ’s analysis of news coverage found that Clinton was featured prominently in 63% of all campaign stories last week, while Barack Obama was featured in 54% and John McCain in just 24% of the stories. Yet when asked which candidate they had heard the most about last week, 53% said Obama, 30% Clinton and 4% McCain. This represents a significant shift from the previous week, when 70% cited Obama as the candidate they had heard the most about, 15% Clinton and 3% McCain.

Most Americans (55%) say their view of Hillary Clinton has not changed over the past few days. Overall, 30% say they have come to feel less favorably toward her over the past few days, while 13% say they have come to feel more favorably toward her. While Clinton’s statement about Bosnia has probably not helped her, balance of public reactions to Clinton are virtually unchanged from the previous week, before this story received widespread coverage.

Opinions about Barack Obama have a similar dynamic – just over half (52%) say their view of him has not changed in recent days, and among those who say it has changed, somewhat more say it is for the worse (27%) than for the better (18%). These reactions are virtually unchanged from the previous week, when news about Rev. Wright and Obama’s speech about race dominated campaign coverage.

In other campaign news last week, roughly two-thirds of the public heard something about Bill Richardson’s decision to endorse Obama (28% heard a lot about this, 39% heard a little). A similar proportion heard about State Department contractors illegally accessing the passport records of the presidential candidates (26% heard a lot, 40% heard a little).

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 March 24-30 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected March 28-31 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.

Is the Press Telling it Like it is?

While the presidential campaign has dominated the national newshole in recent months, the economy has also attracted a substantial amount of media coverage. Last week, the national news media devoted 7% of its overall coverage to the economy. The previous week, 16% of all coverage focused on economic news. For its part, the public has been following economic news very closely. Last week 42% of the public paid very close attention to news about the economy, down only slightly from a 15-year high of 45% the previous week.

While a 46% plurality of Americans say press reports on the economy are balanced, more than a third (35%) believe that the media is making the economic situation seem worse than it actually is. This criticism comes even while Americans themselves are overwhelmingly gloomy about the state of the economy. In the latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press national survey, nearly nine-in-ten rate the economy as only fair (32%) or poor (56%).

Opinions do not differ based on attentiveness to economic news – those following the economy closely are no more or less critical of the press coverage. But partisanship is a factor, with Republicans 12-points more likely than Democrats to say the media is making things seem worse than they are (43% vs. 31%).

The partisan split is even greater with regard to coverage of the Iraq war. Overall, the public is fairly evenly split over how well news coverage reflects the reality on the ground in Iraq: 36% say news reports are making the situation in Iraq seem worse than it really is, 22% say the news is making the situation seem better than it is, and 36% say the news reports portray the situation about the way it really is.

Among Republicans, more than half (52%) say the media is making the war seem worse than it really is. This compares with only 24% of Democrats and 36% of independents. A plurality of Democrats believe news reports are painting an accurate picture of the situation in Iraq.

Campaign and Economy Lead News Interest

The public divided its attention last week between two top stories: the 2008 presidential campaign and reports on the condition of the U.S. economy.

Three-in-ten Americans (31%) followed campaign news very closely and an equal number called the race their most closely followed news story of the week. Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to have followed campaign news very closely (39%-31%). Overall interest in campaign news is down somewhat from February and early March. The percentage of Americans following the campaign very closely had been at or near 40% since early February and has started to slip over the past two weeks.

Media coverage of the campaign, though still substantial, has also begun to wane in recent weeks. Last week the national news media devoted 34% of its overall coverage to the campaign, down from 39% the previous week and 52% at the start of the month.

Despite receiving a significantly smaller share of media coverage, the condition of the U.S. economy is of at least as much interest to the American public. More than four-in-ten followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely and 28% listed economic news as their most closely followed story. Republicans and Democrats followed the news in equal numbers, while those earning under $30,000 a year were less likely than higher earners to have followed the story very closely.

In other news, with the 4,000th U.S. military death in Iraq and renewed violence in the country, news coverage of the Iraq war increased last week. The media devoted 12% of its overall coverage to events in Iraq. This is by far the greatest amount of coverage devoted to Iraq in any given week thus far this year. In spite of the increase in coverage, public interest in the war remained steady: 29% followed Iraq news very closely (virtually unchanged from the previous four weeks) and 13% listed the war as the news story they followed most closely last week.

The ongoing NCCA basketball tournament was the top story for 9% of the public and 13% said they followed the story very closely. Unsurprisingly, men (19% very closely) were more than twice as likely as women (8% very closely) to have been following the tournament very closely.

The legal troubles of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick generated little public interest or coverage. Only 4% of the public called reports about commercial airline safety inspections their top story of the week, though somewhat more (14%) said they followed the story very closely.

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.