April 10, 2008

Campaign News Interest Dips

Awareness of U.S. War Fatalities Rebounds

Summary of Findings

With the presidential campaign in something of a lull, public interest in campaign news has declined. Last week, 33% of the public paid very close attention to campaign news, down from 44% in mid-February. Public interest in the campaign, which had consistently surpassed attentiveness to previous presidential contests, is now comparable to the level measured in April 2004 (31% very closely).

The public is generally aware of salient facts about the presidential race and the candidates’ backgrounds. Fully 77% correctly named Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate with the highest number of pledged delegates. In addition, a solid majority correctly estimated John McCain’s age, with 59% saying he is in his 70s (McCain is 71).

Fewer Americans were able to come up with the name of the state where the next major Democratic primary contest will be held. About four-in-ten (41%) could recall Pennsylvania as the next primary state, while 48% did not know and 11% mentioned another state.

Most Aware of U.S. Death Toll in Iraq

The latest weekly News Interest Index shows that public awareness of the U.S. death toll in Iraq has risen dramatically since early March. Currently, 60% correctly estimated the number of military deaths, up from just 28% in early March. For most of the course of the war, approximately half of Americans were aware of the general level of fatalities.

An analysis of news coverage of Iraq by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that press attention to the war increased during the week of March 24, following an uptick of violence in the country and the 4,000 death milestone being reached on March 23. From March 24-30, 16% of news coverage was devoted to events in Iraq, according to PEJ. From January through mid-March, by contrast, an average of 3% of news coverage was devoted to Iraq.

Moreover, news of the milestone itself received prominent coverage, leading the network news morning shows, NPR’s Morning Edition, and three of the four network evening news broadcasts on March 24. It received front page mention in all four national newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today) on either March 24 or March 25. And it was the lead story March 24 on all five online news sites analyzed by PEJ.

While awareness of the number of troop deaths has increased sharply in all demographic groups, the change has been particularly striking among college graduates. Currently, 71% of college graduates know the number of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq, up from 27% in March. The increase has been smaller among those with less education. As in August 2007, there are substantial educational differences in awareness of U.S. troop fatalities; these differences had largely disappeared in March.

Older respondents are far more likely to know the number of troop deaths than are younger people; 73% of those 65 and older correctly answered the question, compared with just 45% among those ages 18-29. Awareness of U.S. fatalities increased among all age groups, but less among the youngest group.

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 31-April 6 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected April 4-7 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.

Obama Still Most Visible

The media divided its focus fairly evenly last week between Obama and Clinton, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index. Obama was featured prominently in 56% of all campaign stories, while Clinton was featured in 55% of the stories. Nonetheless, Obama remains the most visible candidate to the public; 45% named the Illinois senator as the candidate they have heard the most about in the news recently while 34% pointed to Clinton.

Among those who have been hearing the most about Obama in the news recently, a majority (56%) says the tone of that coverage has been a mix of positive and negative news. A third says that most of what they have heard or read about Obama has been positive, while just 10% say most of the news has been negative.

Perceptions of Clinton’s coverage are somewhat different. More than six-in-ten (63%) of those who have heard the most about Clinton recently say the news about her has been mixed; of the remainder, 22% say the coverage has been mostly negative and 14% say it has been mostly positive.

News coverage of John McCain increased significantly last week. McCain was featured prominently in 30% of all campaign stories, up from 24% a week earlier, and 17% the week before that. However, the Arizona senator still lags far behind the two leading Democratic candidates in terms of public visibility. Only 6% named McCain as the candidate they had heard the most about in the news lately, largely unchanged from last week’s 4%. Even among Republicans, only 10% named McCain as the candidate they had been hearing the most about recently.

Among those who identified McCain as the most visible candidate of the week, many (39%) believe the recent coverage of his campaign has been mostly positive. Just 4% say it has been mostly negative, and 57% say the coverage has been a mix of positive and negative news.

Mixed Knowledge of Campaign Facts

Nearly eight-in-ten Americans (77%) – including comparable numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents – know that Obama leads Clinton in pledged delegates. Even a solid majority of those who are not paying much attention to the campaign (61%) are aware that Obama has the lead over Clinton.

More than seven-in-ten (71%) know that Obama represents the state of Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Republicans are about as likely as Democrats to know this, while somewhat fewer independents correctly identified Illinois as the state Obama represents.

Most Americans (59%) also know that McCain is in his 70s; about a third (32%) estimate his age as younger (in his 50s or 60s), while 2% say that McCain is older (in his 80s). About two-thirds of Republicans (68%) knew that McCain is in his 70s, compared with 58% of Democrats and 54% of independents.

When asked in open-ended format the state where the next major Democratic primary will be held, 41% correctly named Pennsylvania. Among Democrats, just 42% could name Pennsylvania as the site of the next major presidential primary.

Interest in Iraq News Still Modest

While public awareness of the number of fatalities in Iraq has increased sharply, interest in news about the war remains modest. Just a quarter of Americans say they followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely last week, which is down slightly from previous weeks. About one-in-ten (11%) say they followed Iraq more closely than any other story last week, well below the percentages listing the presidential campaign (34%) and the economy (28%).

Interest in the Iraq war is lower now than it was last summer. In mid-August 2007, 36% paid very close attention to news about the situation in Iraq. Since the start of the year, interest in the war has been fairly stable, with between 25% and 31% paying very close attention on a weekly basis.

At the same time, interest in news about the campaign and the condition of the U.S. economy has grown significantly over the last eight months. Interest in the campaign rose sharply in early 2008, peaking in late February and early March, before declining somewhat in recent weeks.

Public attentiveness to economic news also is much higher than it was last summer. In August 2007, 28% of the public said they were following news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely. However, as the economic climate worsened early this year, interest in economic news increased sharply. In late March, fully 45% said they were tracking economic news very closely – the highest level measured in 15 years (See “Obama and Wright Controversy Dominate News Cycle,” March 27, 2008.) Currently, 39% say they are following economic news very closely.

News of the Week

Outside of the campaign, the economy and Iraq, Americans showed little interest in last week’s other news stories. Just 5% followed news about the upcoming summer Olympics in Beijing very closely and even fewer (2%) called it their most closely followed story of the week. Interest was somewhat higher in news about a government proposal to overhaul national financial regulations; 17% of the public followed the story very closely, while 3% called it their top story.

The media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to President Bush’s trip to Europe. When asked in a multiple choice question which part of the world Bush had recently visited, only 34% of the public knew he had been in Eastern Europe. Fewer than half of Republicans (42%) were aware of the region where Bush traveled.

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.