January 8, 2009

Mideast Competes With Economy and Obama for Public Interest

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News reports last week about the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas competed for public attention with stories about the U.S. financial crisis and the Obama presidential transition. Roughly three-in-ten (28%) paid very close attention to news about renewed fighting in the Gaza Strip, while 18% say this was the single news story they followed most closely. Still, in a week in which the media devoted more space to Middle East coverage than any other story, Americans remained most focused on the continuing economic crisis.

Public interest in the first days of the latest Middle East conflict is on par with other recent foreign news stories, but is lower than interest in the Israel-Hezbollah war in August 2006: 40% followed news of that conflict very closely. It is important to note that the current survey was already in the field when Israel launched its ground invasion on Jan. 3, ratcheting up the intensity of the conflict and the media coverage. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, reports from the Middle East led all news coverage last week, accounting for 21% of the newshole.1

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In terms of the balance of reporting, nearly equal pluralities say that the media have been fair in coverage of actions by Israel (43%) and actions by Hamas (42%). But a slightly greater percentage say that the media have not been critical enough of Hamas than say the same about coverage of Israel (30% vs 25%, respectively). Fewer say that the press has been too critical of Israel (16%) or too critical of Hamas (8%).

While many Republicans and Democrats see the coverage as fair to both sides in the conflict, the groups differ somewhat in their views on how news coverage portrays the actions of Israel. More Democrats (28%) than Republicans (15%) say that the media have not been critical enough in how they have covered Israel’s actions. By contrast, Republicans (21%) are more likely than Democrats (12%) to see the coverage as too critical of Israel. Notably, partisans hold largely the same views on coverage of Hamas’ actions in the current conflict.

Coverage of the Transition

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The American public is more likely to say the press has been too critical of President George W. Bush in his last days in office than to say the same about coverage of President-elect Barack Obama. About three-in-ten (29%) see coverage of Bush as too critical, while just 11% see coverage of Obama that way. Still, a plurality (41%) says press coverage of Bush has been fair, while a substantial majority (61%) says the same about coverage of Obama. About one-in-four find coverage of both not critical enough.

These findings are largely driven by partisan views of how the media portray Bush and Obama. Fully 62% of Republicans say the press has been too critical of Bush. About one-in-four (27%) Republicans say the press has been fair and just 10% say the press has not been critical enough of him. Democrats and independents are less disparaging of Bush’s press coverage. Half of Democrats view coverage of Bush as fair and a plurality (41%) of independents share this view.

When asked about coverage of Obama, half of Republicans say that the press has been fair, while a substantial minority (37%) say the press coverage has not been critical enough. Very few Republicans (9%) say that the press has been too critical of the president-elect. Democrats (69%), meanwhile, overwhelmingly say that the press has been fair in the way it has covered Obama. Some 16% of Democrats say the press has been too critical of Obama and 11% say it has not been critical enough.

Not surprisingly, the public has been following news about Obama’s transition to power more closely than President Bush’s final days in the White House. Plans for the new administration received considerably more attention from the media, ranking fourth among the top 10 stories according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and accounting for 8% of the newshole. Stories about Bush’s final days in office did not make the project’s top ten for the week.

Among the public, three-in-ten (32%) followed Obama’s appointments and plans very closely, making it among the most closely followed stories of the week. One-in-four (24%) say that the transition was the story they followed most closely. Reports about President Bush’s last days in the White House were followed very closely by 12% of the public; this was the top story for 1% of Americans. These stories accounted for 1% of total news.

Top Stories of the Week

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News about U.S. economic conditions shared the public’s attention with the Obama transition and the conflict in the Middle East last week. Four-in-ten (42%) Americans followed the economy very closely; 26% said this was the new story they followed more closely than all other reporting. The media devoted 13% of the newshole to reports about the economy.

In other findings from Pew’s Weekly News Interest Index, one-in-four Americans say they followed news about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointing Roland Burris to replace Obama in the Senate, despite an ongoing corruption investigation alleging Blagojevich attempted to sell the seat for personal gain. The Blagojevich saga was the most closely followed story of the week for 10% of the public. Two-in-ten (22%) paid very close attention to news about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan; 5% cited this as their top story.

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 coverage. 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 December 29, 2008-January 4, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected January 2-4, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,017 adults.

Find more about news interest and the campaign at people-press.org.


Notes

1 For a ranking of recent foreign news stories See “Strong Advance Interest in Democratic Convention” released August 21, 2008.