Summary of Findings
Most Americans feel the press has gone overboard in covering the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Fully 61% believe the Smith story has been overcovered, far more than the number saying that about any other recent story. Even so, a sizable minority (11%) followed Smith’s death more closely than any of last week’s other top stories. This is on par with the number who cited news about the 2008 presidential candidates (13%) or the Super Bowl (11%) as the stories they followed most closely. The war in Iraq was the top story for the week of Feb. 5, with 30% following it most closely.
These are the principal findings of the first weekly News Interest Index, a new initiative by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index will build on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, adding an important new dimension.
For the first time, the public’s news interest can be compared with the news media’s agenda through 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. PEJ’s Index examines news content each week from Sunday through Friday, with the results released every Tuesday. The News Interest Index survey will measure the public’s reaction over the weekend (Friday through Monday) with the results reported on Thursdays. The marriage of these two projects provides an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate how the public’s appetite for major news stories compares with the amount of coverage the press devotes to these stories.
Data collected since the start of the year suggest that the public and the press are often in agreement about the most important news stories of the day. The Iraq war has consistently been the top-ranked news story both in terms of public interest and press coverage. In the News Interest Index survey for the week of Feb. 5 (conducted Feb. 9-12), 30% of Americans said the situation in Iraq was the story they followed most closely, nearly double the next highest story – winter weather. During that same week, 22% of the news reported across a broad spectrum of media outlets was devoted to the Iraq war (12% to the policy debate and 10% to events on the ground), according to PEJ.
Anna Nicole Coverage
The death of Anna Nicole Smith, which set off a classic media feeding frenzy, may be an instance where press coverage exceeded public demand. Eleven percent of the public said Smith’s death was the news story they followed most closely last week; 9% of the week’s news coverage was devoted to this topic. But because the death occurred mid-week, the full extent of news coverage is not accurately captured by that 9% figure. In the two days immediately following Smith’s death (Feb. 8-9), nearly a quarter of the news from all sectors (24%) was devoted to this story, and fully half of cable news was focused on Smith. The public reacted negatively to the abundance of coverage – 61% feel that the Smith story received too much coverage, compared with just 8% who think it should have received more.
On the other big tabloid story of the week – involving a female astronaut, a love triangle, and charges of attempted murder – public interest and news coverage seemed to be more closely aligned. Just 4% of the public said this was the story they followed most closely last week. Notably, 29% believe the saga of astronaut Lisa Nowak received too much coverage; 11% feel it was undercovered. The story was overshadowed by Smith’s death, and by week’s end 6% of the overall coverage had been devoted to the story.
It seems that news coverage of the weather did not match the public’s fascination with it. Record cold temperatures and dramatic snowstorms captured the interest of many Americans this past week – 17% said the weather was their top story, while only 3% of the news coverage was devoted to this topic.
Beyond Tabloid Stories, Iraq and Campaign Dominate
Aside from the recent tabloid stories and the weather, the public has been focused on several important national and international issues over the past several weeks. The media has devoted an enormous amount of time to the Iraq war, but Americans do not seem to be tiring of the coverage. In the most recent poll taken this past weekend, 43% selected Iraq as the news story that, if anything, should be receiving even more coverage from the media.
The 2008 presidential campaign, with high stakes and an interesting cast of characters, has caught the public’s interest. During the past three weeks, this has been a top-tier news story both in terms of interest and coverage. Public interest in the 2008 election is significantly higher at this early stage than was the case eight years ago.
The high-profile global warming conference in Paris and stories related to the causes of global climate change attracted a considerable amount of public interest. During the week of Jan. 29, 11% of the public said global warming was the story they were most interested in. (Ten years ago, during the Kyoto summit, the public was paying very little attention to this issue.) News coverage of global warming was substantial during the week of the Paris conference, with 5% of the overall newshole devoted to this topic.
The Scooter Libby trial – a complex, inside-the-Beltway story – has yet to spark widespread interest among the public. Stories about the trial accounted for 3-4% of the newshole during the last two weeks of January. The Libby trial has been the top news story for just 1% of the public, and fewer than 10% have been following it very closely. The public was much more intrigued with the circumstances surrounding the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame back in July 2005, when Karl Rove was still a central character.
Partisan Audiences and Evaluations
Many of these stories have a political dimension, and as a result partisanship is linked to both interest in the stories and evaluations of press coverage. Democrats have paid somewhat closer attention than Republicans to the 2008 presidential campaign. Democrats also express more interest than Republicans in the global warming story and the Scooter Libby trial.
Republicans are highly critical of the way the press has covered the Iraq war. About two-thirds of Republicans who have been following the Iraq story say the press’s coverage has been “only fair” or “poor;” this compares with 44% of Democrats. Republicans are less critical of press coverage of the 2008 campaign – 52% give the press low ratings vs. 36% of Democrats.
Who’s Following Anna Nicole?
While most feel the Anna Nicole Smith story has been overcovered, 11% of Americans say they have followed it more closely than anything else this past week. Women – especially younger women – are by far the most interested in this story. Among women ages 18-49, 18% list Smith’s death as the most interesting news story last week, placing it roughly on par with news about Iraq (20%) and the campaign (16%). By contrast, men over age 50 were the least intrigued by this story – just 2% rate news about the former Playboy Playmate’s death as the top story. Instead, older men are the most focused on Iraq; fully 44% rate it as the single story they followed most closely.
The gender gap in news interest is most extreme with respect to news about Anna Nicole Smith’s death: of those who rated this as the story they followed most closely, 72% are women. Winter weather news also appealed more to women than men – 62% of the people who followed this most closely are women. Not surprisingly, those who followed the Super Bowl more closely than any other news were predominantly male (61%), as is the core audience for Iraq news (57% male).
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.pewresearch.org/journalism.