May 8, 2008

Wright Controversy Top Campaign Event So Far

Most Say Wright’s Comments Were Overcovered

Summary of Findings

The latest round of news about Barack Obama and his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright dominated campaign news coverage last week. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) Campaign Coverage Index, 42% of all campaign coverage last week dealt with the Rev. Wright controversy.

Wright’s comments are by far the biggest political event of the campaign to date: fully 62% say they have heard a lot or a little about Rev. Wright’s recent speeches. As a point of comparison, just 36% say they heard a lot or a little about another campaign development last week – the calls by Hillary Clinton and John McCain to temporarily suspend the federal gasoline tax.

Most Americans (59%) think that news organizations have overcovered the Wright controversy. About two-thirds of Democrats (66%) and nearly as many independents (59%) say that news organizations have devoted too much coverage to Wright’s recent speeches. But as many as half of Republicans agree that Wright’s comments have received too much coverage.

Obama was by far the most visible presidential candidate last week; 57% say Obama is the candidate they heard the most about in the news recently while just 29% named Clinton. McCain barely registered with the public last week as only 2% said he was the candidate they had heard the most about.

By the end of the week, a quarter of all Americans, including 26% of Democrats, said their opinion of Obama had become less favorable in recent days; fewer than half as many (11%) said their opinion of the Illinois senator had become more favorable.

People who said their impression of Obama had changed in recent days were asked if any specific events had caused them to change their view of him. Overall, a majority of those who said their opinion of Obama had become more negative volunteered a specific incident, with the Wright controversy mentioned most frequently (by 60% of those who cited a specific event). Descriptions included “the debacle concerning the Rev. Wright,” “the mess with his preacher” and “Jeremiah’s opinions.”

According to exit polls in North Carolina and Indiana, roughly half of the primary voters in those states said Obama’s relationship with Wright was an important factor in their vote. Those who said this was important voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. And exit polls in both states found late deciders backing Clinton to a greater extent than those who made up their minds earlier.

Wright’s Reemergence

Rev. Wright’s reemergence as a major figure in the presidential campaign became by far the biggest political event in the campaign to date. Fully 62% say they heard a lot about Wright’s recent speeches.

The top events in the campaign to date all involve either Wright or Obama: 54% said they heard a lot about Obama’s major speech about race in March; 52% heard a lot about Obama’s comments last month about “bitter” small-town Americans; and 51% said the same about videos of Wright’s sermons in March.

Opinions of Clinton and McCain More Stable

Opinions about Clinton and McCain were more stable last week. About as many people said their opinion of Clinton had become less favorable as more favorable in recent days (16% less favorable, 14% more favorable); 65% said their opinion of Clinton had not changed. This marks the first time in five surveys conducted since mid-March that the balance of recent opinion about Clinton was not substantially negative.

In the follow-up question about why their opinion of Clinton had become more or less favorable, no single issue was dominant. Some of those who said their opinion of Clinton had become more favorable recently cited her appearance on The O’Reilly Factor and her position on suspending the federal gas tax. Others said the gas tax was the reason their views of Clinton had become less favorable.

As with Clinton, a large majority (71%) said their opinion of McCain had not changed recently; 13% said their view had become less favorable while 10% said it had become more favorable. There were no dominant reasons offered for changing opinions of McCain.

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 April 28 – May 4 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected May 2-5 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults.

More Interest in Gas Prices than Campaign News

The presidential campaign once again was the most heavily covered story of the week, accounting for 38% of all news coverage. For the public, however, the rising price of gas, which emerged as a prominent issue in the campaign, was the top news story. More than six-in-ten (63%) say they followed news about gas prices very closely and 30% cited it as the story they followed most closely last week.

The public also closely tracked news about the national economy: 43% say the followed economic news very closely with 20% citing it as the story they followed most closely last week. The economy was the second most covered story, accounting for 10% of news coverage.

Another economic development – the arrival of federal tax rebate checks – also registered with the public. Fully 62% of the public has heard a lot about this and another 22% have heard a little.

Interest in campaign news remained fairly stable last week. Roughly a quarter of Americans (27%) say they followed news about the presidential campaign very closely, with 16% saying they followed it more closely than other any other story. Far more Democrats than independents or Republicans tracked campaign news very closely. About four-in-ten Democrats (39%) say they paid very close attention to news about the campaign, compared with 23% of independents and 21% of Republicans.

Miley Cyrus Photos

In other news last week, most Americans heard at least a little about the recent pictures of Disney star Miley Cyrus that appeared in Vanity Fair magazine. Roughly a quarter of the public (27%) heard a lot about the photos and another 37% heard a little about them.

Women are more likely than men to have heard about the Vanity Fair photos (31% of women vs. 23% of men heard a lot about them). Parents were no more likely than non-parents to have heard a lot about the photos of Cyrus, who is popular with young girls.

Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) say they actually saw the photos, and among this group the reaction was decidedly negative. Fully 59% thought they were inappropriate, while 27% thought they were appropriate. Men and women held roughly similar views on the issue with majorities of both groups saying the photos were inappropriate.

Parents who have seen the photos apparently have not been eager to discuss the issue with their children. Just 15% of parents with children under age 18 say they have discussed the Vanity Fair photos with their kids while 83% say they have not done so.

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.