March 27, 2008

Obama and Wright Controversy Dominate News Cycle

Public Interest in Economic News Reaches 15-Year High

Summary of Findings

Barack Obama’s March 18th speech on race and politics is arguably the biggest political event of the campaign so far. Fully 85% of Americans say they heard at least a little about Obama’s speech, and most (54%) say they heard a lot about it.

Not surprisingly, Barack Obama has been far and away the most visible of the presidential candidates over the past week – 70% say they have heard more about him in the news than the other candidates, compared with 15% who cite Hillary Clinton and just 3% who say they have heard the most about John McCain. As recently as three weeks ago, Obama and Clinton were equally visible in the news.

Roughly half of Americans (49%) saw videos of Reverend Wright’s sermons, and roughly the same number (51%) watched Barack Obama’s speech about race and politics last week. Television was the predominant source for video of these news items, however the internet also played a role.

One-in-ten Americans say they saw Obama’s speech online (7% on the internet only, 3% both on TV and the internet). About the same number (12%) report having seen Wright’s sermons online.

The impact of these events on Obama’s overall image appears to be mixed. Three-in-ten Americans (30%) say their opinion of Obama has grown less favorable in recent days, but another 22% say their opinion of him has grown more favorable.

One measurable effect of Obama’s speech on race in America was to increase the visibility of Reverend Wright’s sermons. In the days leading up to Obama’s Tuesday speech, just 31% of Americans had heard a lot about Wright’s sermons. But over the past weekend, 51% reported hearing a lot about them.

[For more analysis of the impact of these events on views of Obama, see the accompanying report, "Obama Weathers the Wright Storm, Clinton Faces Credibility Problem" released March 27, 2008 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.]

Obama Dominates Public Visibility and Campaign Coverage

Throughout the first three months of the year, Obama and Clinton have been far more visible than the other presidential candidates, and this overwhelming focus on the Democratic contest continues. In the current poll, Obama is by far the candidate that the public has been hearing the most about in the news. Fully, 70% have heard more about Obama in the last week than any other candidate. This is consistent with the balance of the press coverage, according to the Campaign Coverage Index conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Last week, Obama was the featured news maker in 72% of all campaign news stories, his highest coverage level this year.

Only 15% said that Sen. Clinton was the candidate they have been hearing the most about. The gap between Obama’s and Clinton’s visibility has grown substantially over the last two weeks from roughly equal visibility in early March, when 38% had been hearing most about Obama, 37% about Clinton. The drop in Clinton’s public visibility is also consistent with the amount of coverage her campaign received in recent weeks. The share of campaign coverage in which Clinton was the featured candidate fell from 60% three weeks ago to 51% in the following week and down to 30% this past week, according to the Campaign Coverage Index conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Though John McCain has sewn up the Republican nomination, he continues to lag far behind Obama and Clinton in public visibility. Only 3% of the public named John McCain as the candidate they heard most about in the news recently. This too is consistent with the findings of the Campaign Coverage Index, which found just 17% of campaign news stories giving a substantial amount of coverage to McCain, compared with 30% for Clinton and 72% for Obama.

Fewer Americans heard about Senator McCain’s visit to Iraq and the Middle East than heard about Obama’s speech or the Rev. Wright videos. Only about one-in-five Americans heard a lot about either McCain’s trip to the Middle East (22%) where he planned to strengthen his foreign policy credentials or his potentially damaging misstatement linking Iran with al Qaeda (17%).

Press Coverage of Obama Seen As Fair

While Americans are hearing a lot from the press about recent events and controversies surrounding the leading major party candidates, public opinion about the tone of campaign coverage has changed very little over the course of the last month. In fact, relatively few criticize the press for bias in coverage either for or against the candidates. Most voters say that the press treatment of each of the three candidates has been fair.

On balance, more Americans believe coverage of Obama has been too easy on him (23%) than say it has been too tough (15%). A substantial number of Republicans (37%) continue to believe that the press is going easy on Obama (down slightly from 42% in early March). Conversely, among Democrats the number who believe that the coverage of Obama has been too tough increased from 7% in early March to 19% now.

For presumptive Republican nominee John McCain more than six-in-ten Americans (62%) say that the press has treated his campaign fairly and fewer than one-in-ten (9%) call the coverage of McCain too tough. Comparable to the other candidates, almost one-in-five (18%) says the press has been too easy on McCain. Partisanship continues to drive views of the tone of coverage. A larger share of Democrats (25%) than Republicans (7%) believe that the press is going too easy on.

Where opinions may have changed over the course of March about the tone of campaign coverage occurs among Democrats and independents who lean Democratic. Among this group, a majority (61%) say the press coverage of Obama has been fair. However, the share of Democrats and Democratic leaners saying that coverage of his campaign has been too tough increased significantly over the last three weeks (11% to 19%) in the aftermath of steady news coverage about controversial remarks by Obama’s former pastor and the Senator’s speech on race and politics in America.

Surging Interest in Troubled U.S. Economy

Public attention to reports about the condition of the U.S. economy reached a 15 year high last week with 45% of the public following this news very closely. This is up from two weeks prior when 38% reported following news about the U.S. economy very closely and substantially higher than last fall when less than three-in-ten followed U.S. economic news very closely. The last time the condition of the U.S. economy drew this much attention was in February 1993 when 49% of the public said they followed economic news very closely.

The big economic news story last week was the buyout of Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns by J.P. Morgan Chase with the financial backing of the Federal Reserve. Almost half of the public said that they followed news about the buyout either very closely (21%) or fairly closely (26%), but the story attracted far less interest than the condition of the U.S. economy in general (78% very or fairly closely). Those in the top income tiers paid closer attention to news about the Bear Stearns buyout than did those with lower annual incomes. Among those earning $75,000 annually, 27% reported following this story very closely compared to 17% of those earning between $30,000 and $49,999 and 16% of those earning less than $30,000. Income differences do not affect the level of attention paid to the condition of the U.S. economy in general.

Campaign Tops News Interest

One-in Three Americans (34%) paid very close attention to news about the presidential campaign and roughly the same proportion (32%) listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. Republicans and Democrats followed campaign news equally closely last week. Coverage of the campaign well surpassed all other major stories. Campaign coverage accounted for 39% of the newshole and was particularly dominant on cable news television, where the campaign made up three-quarters (73%) of all news.

The Iraq war was the public’s third most closely followed story last week (11% called it their top story). Three-in-ten continue to follow news about the situation in Iraq very closely, generally unchanged from recent surveys. Public interest in the Iraq policy debate, which was back in the news last week largely because of the 5th anniversary of the war, was unchanged from its level in early December. One-in-five (21%) followed the Iraq policy debate very closely and 3% said this was the story they followed most closely. The national news media devoted 3% of its overall coverage to events in Iraq and 5% to the Iraq policy debate.

There was relatively little public interest in violent protests in Tibet against the Chinese government. Overall, just 12% say they paid very close attention to this story, roughly equal to the number who followed the news about pro-democracy protests in Burma last fall (13% followed Burma very closely). Just 4% listed violence in Tibet as their most closely followed story while, for the national news media, stories about China and Tibet were the third biggest news story of the week accounting for 4% of total coverage.

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.

Cite this publication: “Obama and Wright Controversy Dominate News Cycle.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 27, 2008) http://www.people-press.org/2008/03/27/obama-and-wright-controversy-dominate-news-cycle/, accessed on July 22, 2014.