April 5, 2007

Iraq Tops News Interest – and Anna Holds Her Own

Despite Media Focus on British Hostages in Iran, War News Draws More Public Attention and Ms. Smith's Autopsy Scores Big

FigureWhile press coverage was more focused on the U.S. attorney scandal and the 15 British sailors being held in Iran this past week, Americans remained more interested in news about the current situation in Iraq. Overall, 26% of Americans reported following news from Iraq more closely than any other topic, compared with 15% who tracked the British sailors and 12% who tracked the U.S. attorney scandal most closely. By comparison, both the British hostages and the U.S. attorney scandal received roughly twice as much press coverage as the situation in Iraq this past week.

News coverage about Iraq this past week has been divided between the policy debate in Washington (10% of all news coverage) and events in Iraq (6%), and the public is clearly interested in both subjects. Overall, 34% report following news about events in Iraq “very closely” and 26% say the same about the policy debate here at home.

FigureBut when asked which story they followed most closely this week, news coming from Iraq remains the clear priority. By more than three-to-one (26% vs. 7%) a larger share cite events in Iraq rather than the policy debate at home as the single topic they followed most closely.

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.

Anna Nicole Smith Still a Draw

FigureDespite limited coverage, there remains a core audience for news about Anna Nicole Smith; 16% of Americans followed reports on Ms. Smith’s autopsy results the most closely – a story that filled only 2% of the newshole this past week. Overall, roughly twice as many people focused on this story as focused on reports about the 2008 campaign or on the Iraq policy debate in Washington, even though each of the last two stories received three-times the press coverage.

The size of the core Anna Nicole Smith audience is as large today as it was in mid-February, even though it is now receiving far less press coverage. The week of February 19th reports on Ms. Smith’s death took up 10% of the media’s newshole, compared with just 2% this past week. However, 16% of Americans followed this story more closely than any other at both points in time.

One difference from February is that Anna Nicole Smith is no longer the single most visible news figure – that honor goes to the president – although she remains quite memorable. More than a third of Americans (36%) volunteered George W. Bush as the person they have heard the most about in the news lately. But another 22% volunteered Anna Nicole Smith, making her far more memorable than other figures in the news such as Alberto Gonzales (8%), Hillary Clinton (3%) or Barack Obama (2%). In mid-February, more people cited Smith (38%) than Bush (28%) as the person they had heard the most about.

FigureTracking news attentiveness over the past two months reveals a great deal of consistency in what people are interested in. Throughout February and March, the share following news about the situation in Iraq very closely has ranged from a low of 30% to a high of 37%, with only small fluctuations. Similarly, around two-in-ten every week have followed news about the 2008 campaign very closely. By comparison, fewer (between 11% and 14%) have reported tracking reports about Anna Nicole Smith very closely, but the number has remained remarkably steady over time.

The Attorney Firings

Public interest in news about the involvement of the White House and Attorney General in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys has crept upward over the past month. Even though press coverage is down slightly (from 18% of the newshole the week of March 19th to 11% this past week), the share of Americans who say they are following this story more closely than any other is up from 8% to 12%. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans (16% vs. 9%) to rate this as the top story this week.

For more information about the Pew Center for the People & the Press’s News Interest Index, including the final topline for the latest survey, go to people-press.org. For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to journalism.org.