Summary of Findings
Anna Nicole Smith’s death and the bizarre aftermath continue to fascinate a significant segment of the American public and the mainstream media. During the second full week of coverage of the story, interest remained steady and coverage actually increased – as portions of the legal proceedings concerning her body were carried live by the major cable networks. The public has voiced concern that the story was being over-covered (61% said Smith’s death received too much coverage). Nonetheless, the more than one-third of the public who are now following the story closely give the news media high marks for its coverage. This is consistent with other major tabloid stories of the past, where the core audiences for those stories have generally approved of the press coverage.
In fact, the press gets higher ratings for its coverage from the Smith audience than it does from the audiences of any of the top hard news stories of the week. Among the 35% of Americans who followed the Smith story closely, fully two-thirds rate the press coverage as excellent (32%) or good (34%). Only 13% say the press has done a poor job in covering the story. Another human interest story receives high ratings from its primary audience as well. Those who closely followed the rescue of three climbers stranded on Oregon’s Mt. Hood also approve of the media’s coverage of that story. Fully 25% say the media did an excellent job and another 54% say they did a good job.
The press receives lower ratings for its coverage of Iraq from those who were following that story closely – 13% rate the coverage excellent, 37% say it’s been good. Reports about sub-par conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center receive similar ratings from those following the story closely – 10% excellent, 39% good. The public also gives the press higher grades for its Smith coverage than for its reporting on the 2008 presidential campaign and on the mounting tensions between Iran and the U.S. Roughly half of those following each story give the press excellent or good ratings for its coverage.
High press ratings for tabloid stories are not unusual. The press received similarly high marks for its coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder case and, more recently, the murder of Laci Peterson.
These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, a new initiative by 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.
Iraq Still Dominates Interest and Coverage
Overall, Iraq was the dominant news story this past week, both in terms of interest and coverage. Fully 36% of Americans followed news about Iraq very closely, and 34% said it was the story they followed most closely. One-fifth of the news coverage across five major media sectors was devoted to the Iraq policy debate and events on the ground. By comparison, 13% of the public followed the Smith story very closely and 16% said it was their top story. Coverage of Smith’s death and the aftermath made up 10% of the overall newshole and more than one quarter (26%) of cable news coverage – making it the top story by far for that sector.
As has been the case for the past two weeks, women, particularly younger women, are much more interested in the Smith story than are men. While nearly one- quarter of women ages 18-49 list Smith’s death as their top story of the week, only 13% of all men say the same. Men remain much more focused on Iraq. Not only are women more likely to follow the Smith story, they like the coverage better as well. Fully 70% of women who are tuned into the Smith story give the press high marks for its coverage. Men who are following the story are slightly less enthused about the coverage – 58% give the press an excellent or good rating.
Other major stories of the week included the 2008 presidential campaign, mounting tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the exposé on conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the rescue of the Mt. Hood climbers. Public interest in the campaign edged up slightly from the previous week as did coverage – 22% followed campaign news very closely and 12% said this was their top story of the week. Campaign news made up 12% of the newshole with a good deal of the coverage devoted to feuding between the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama camps.
Nearly three-in-ten Americans (29%) followed news about Iran very closely, as the focus shifted back to the nation’s nuclear program, and 9% said this was their top story of the week. Coverage of this story accounted for 5% of the newshole. The public was somewhat less interested in the Walter Reed story – 19% followed it very closely and 5% said it was their top story. Three percent of the week’s news coverage was devoted to this story. One-in-ten Americans paid very close attention to the Mt. Hood story and 4% said it was the story they followed most closely last week. Media coverage was substantial early in the week, but fell off once the climbers had been rescued. Over the entire week, 3% of the newshole was devoted to this story.
Republicans More Critical of War News Coverage
With regard to Iraq, Republicans and Independents are now much more critical of press coverage of the war than they were back in 2003. In July of 2003, 64% of those who were following the situation in Iraq gave the press high marks for its coverage. At that time, Republicans, Democrats and Independents were largely in agreement about the press’s performance – 66% of Republicans, 61% of Democrats and 63% of Independents gave the press an excellent or good rating. Today, there is a clear partisan pattern to the evaluations. Among Democrats who are following news about Iraq closely, 62% say the media has done an excellent or good job covering the story. This compares to only 40% of Republicans and 47% of Independents who are closely following news about Iraq.
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.