July 2, 2008

For Public, Oil Prices and Economic News Overshadow Campaign

McCain Remains Much Less Visible than Obama

Summary of Findings

News organizations continued to focus a great deal of attention on the presidential campaign last week, but the public was more interested in news about the rising price of oil and the overall economy.

As the price of oil reached a new record, a solid majority (57%) followed news about rising oil prices very closely. More than a third (35%) said they followed this story more closely than other news, making it the week’s top story. Interest in oil prices was greater than it was last fall, when the price first reached $100 a barrel; last November, 44% of the public tracked oil prices very closely.

In addition, interest in economic news reached a 15-year high last week. Amid news of plunging stocks, a mounting credit crisis as well as higher energy costs, 49% of the public said they followed news about the economy very closely. The economy was the most closely followed story of the week for 16% of Americans.

News organizations devoted a substantial amount of coverage to oil prices and the economy, but the presidential campaign received far more coverage. The campaign was the week’s most heavily covered story, accounting for 27% of all coverage, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) News Coverage Index. By contrast, news about oil prices and the U.S. economy accounted for 12% of all news last week, (oil prices 7%, economy 5%).

On the Campaign Trail: Media and Public Focused Mainly on Democrats

Public interest in the campaign, while significantly greater than it was a week earlier, still lagged behind interest in oil prices and the economy. Four-in-ten (39%) followed news about the campaign very closely last week, up from 28% the week before. Coverage of the campaign focused heavily on the Democrats and their efforts to unite behind Barack Obama in November. According to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, 58% of the coverage focused on Obama and the Democratic Party, while 14% focused on the Republicans.

Throughout most of the year, Democrats have followed the presidential campaign more closely than Republicans. However, last week marked the largest partisan gap in campaign interest since the start of the presidential race in early 2007. Democrats were almost twice as likely as Republicans to say they followed the campaign very closely (52% vs. 28%).

More than four-in-ten Americans (43%) heard a lot about Barack Obama’s joint appearance with Hillary Clinton at an event held in Unity, New Hampshire on June 27. According to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, about a quarter of the week’s campaign stories (23%) focused on divisions between Democrats and the efforts to unite behind Obama. Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to have heard a lot about the Obama-Clinton rally (55% vs. 33%).

Obama continued to overshadow John McCain, not only in terms of news coverage but also in public visibility. The Illinois senator was featured prominently in 82% of all campaign stories, more than double the number of stories mentioning McCain (40%).

Consistent with the balance of coverage, the public reported hearing far more about Obama than about McCain in recent weeks. Three-quarters of Americans said that Obama was the candidate they had heard most about in the news. This compares with only 10% who named McCain. Obama was far more visible than McCain among Republicans (69% vs. 17%) as well as Democrats (81% vs. 8%).

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 June 23-29 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected June 27-30 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.

In Other News…

About three-in-ten Americans (28%) paid very close attention to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning a ban on the possession of handguns in Washington, D.C. One-in-ten (9%) listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. Roughly equal proportions of Republicans, Democrats and Independents paid very close attention to this story. Overall, 5% of the national newshole was devoted to news about the Supreme Court ruling on handguns.

There was relatively little interest in Zimbabwe’s disputed elections and related violence in that country. Only 13% followed this story very closely and just 3% listed this as their top story of the week. The story did receive substantial coverage, especially online, accounting for 7% of all news last week. Recent steps by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program attracted the very close attention of one-in-five Americans (19%) and 2% listed this as the story they tracked most 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.