July 31, 2008

Obama’s Trip a Top Campaign Event for Public

42% Say Campaign Coverage Biased in Favor of Obama

Summary of Findings

Barack Obama’s weeklong tour of the Middle East and Europe dominated campaign coverage last week, and 90% of the public heard at least something about his travels. Obama’s trip became one of the biggest campaign events thus far, with 62% saying they heard a lot about it. The only campaign development more widely known was Obama’s securing the Democratic nomination in June.

Despite all the media attention and the high level of public awareness, only 15% say they learned a great deal about Obama’s approach to foreign policy from hearing or reading about his overseas trip. A third say they learned some about his foreign policy views, but more than half (52%) say they didn’t learn much or learned nothing at all.

Democrats learned more than Republicans or independents. Among Democrats who had heard about the trip, 20% say they learned a great deal about Obama’s foreign policy positions from hearing or reading about his travels, another 37% say they learned some. Among Republicans who had heard about the trip, 12% said they learned a great deal and 28% said they learned some. Most Republicans (60%) said they learned little or nothing from the coverage of the trip. Independents were more evenly split with 45% saying they learned a great deal or some about Obama’s foreign policy approach from following his trip and 55% saying they learned little or nothing.

Media coverage of Obama’s trip accounted for 51% of all campaign news last week, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) Campaign Coverage Index, making it one of the most heavily covered campaign stories of the year. As has been the case throughout the general election campaign, media coverage of Obama outweighed that of Republican John McCain last week by a significant margin: 81% of the campaign stories analyzed by PEJ prominently featured the Illinois senator, while 53% featured McCain. Obama has enjoyed a persistent advantage over McCain in terms of public visibility, and last week the gap between the two candidates was the widest it has been. Fully 77% of the public said Obama was the candidate they heard the most about in the news last week, only 9% named McCain.

Widespread Perceptions of Press Bias

The media’s sustained focus on the Obama campaign has raised questions about press bias. Overall, 42% of the public say that in covering the presidential election, the press has shown bias in favor of Obama. Only 6% say the press has been biased in favor of McCain, and 42% say the press has shown no bias at all.

Republicans overwhelming believe the press has been biased toward Obama (71%). Even many Democrats say the press has been biased in favor of Obama (28%), while 42% of independents see some bias toward Obama.

The public reacted similarly to the coverage of the two leading Democratic candidates near the end of the nomination contest. In early June, before Hillary Clinton decided to suspend her presidential campaign, 37% of the public said the press had shown bias in favor of Barack Obama in its coverage of the Democratic primaries. Only 8% said the press had been biased in favor of Clinton and 40% said the press had shown no bias. Republicans were much less likely to see bias in coverage of the primaries than in coverage of the general election campaign. Independents reacted about the same in each instance – 40% said the press was biased toward Obama in the primaries, and 41% said the press was not biased toward either candidate.

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 were collected from July 21-27 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected July 25-28 from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults.

Sustained Interest in Economic News

In other news last week, the public continued to follow news about the U.S. economy closely. Fully 46% paid very close attention to reports about the condition of the economy and 29% listed this as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. The national news media devoted 6% of its overall coverage to the economy.

The media focused much more heavily on the presidential election than on the economy: 38% of the national newshole was devoted to the campaign. Barack Obama’s trip did not boost overall interest in the campaign. Three-in-ten Americans followed campaign news very closely last week, unchanged from the previous two weeks. One-in-four (24%) listed the campaign as their most closely followed news story of the week.

Roughly three-in-ten (28%) paid very close attention to news about the war in Iraq, 11% listed this as their most closely followed story. News about Hurricane Dolly, which hit the South Texas coastline last week, was followed very closely by 19% of the public. The news media devoted 5% of its overall coverage to the hurricane.

As Beijing prepares for the Summer Olympics, 12% of Americans are very closely following news about China and the upcoming Games. Another 31% are following this fairly closely. Interest in the Olympic preparations is slightly higher than interest in the buildup to the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece (10% were following this story very closely in August, 2004 and 22% were following fairly 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.