Summary of Findings
News about problems with the medical care of wounded Iraq war veterans drew the public’s attention last week. More than three-in-ten Americans (31%) paid very close attention to news about conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and more general reports about how soldiers returning from Iraq are being cared for. And 20% said this was the story they followed most closely, making it the second most closely followed news story of the week. The situation in Iraq continued to be the dominant news story both in terms of interest and coverage. Even the announcement of a verdict in the Scooter Libby trial failed to generate much public interest, in spite of the news media’s intense focus on the story.
In another measure of the public’s interest in the Walter Reed story, nearly one-quarter (24%) say this story received too little coverage from the news media, only 4% say it has received too much coverage. Actual news coverage of the story was substantial last week. Six percent of the news on all sectors was devoted to this topic. When the Walter Reed story first broke, public interest was much more limited. The week of Feb. 19, 19% of the public followed the story very closely and 5% named it as their most closely followed news story. That same week news about conditions at Walter Reed filled 3% of the newshole.
Only 13% of the public followed the Libby verdict very closely and 7% named it as the story they followed most closely last week. Interest was up only moderately from January and February, when the trial was ongoing. In terms of news coverage, the Libby story made up 13% of the overall newshole for the week putting it ahead of the presidential campaign and the Walter Reed story. It was the top story on cable television with 18% of cable news devoted to the verdict.
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.
In other top stories, the public continued to pay fairly close attention to news about the 2008 presidential campaign. Nearly one-quarter of the public followed this story very closely, and 13% said it was their top story of the week. Nine percent of news coverage for the week was devoted to the campaign. News about the recent Mega Millions lottery jackpot was followed very closely by 9% of the public, 3% listed this as the story they followed most closely (1% of the week’s news was devoted to this story).
News about the firing of eight federal prosecutors by the Justice Department hardly registered with the public last week — 9% followed this story very closely and 1% said it was the story they followed most closely. Two percent of news coverage was devoted to this story. Newspapers focused more heavily on the story than did other sectors (6%). Press conferences by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and President Bush — as well as mounting pressure on Gonzales to resign — occurred too late to be measured in this week’s New Coverage and New Interest indices.
Mixed Messages on Libby
For the vast majority of the public, the Libby trial and verdict was of little consequence. Only one-third of the public followed this story very or fairly closely. That small but select group of Americans overwhelmingly viewed the Libby verdict as being important to the country, and most found the case interesting and easy to follow. However, the two-thirds of the public that was not tuned in to the story viewed it as boring and not particularly easy to follow. Only half of this group says the Libby case was important for the country.
Men, college graduates and those age 50 and older are among the most likely to have closely followed the Libby verdict. Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to pay close attention to this story. Nevertheless, even among Democrats, fully 38% paid no attention at all to this story. Whether they were following the trial or not, the vast majority of Democrats believe the case was important for the country: 71% of Democrats say it was important compared to only 49% of Republicans.
Too Little Walter Reed Coverage
No one story stood out last week as being over-covered by the news media. When asked which if any of the week’s top stories had received too much coverage, roughly half of the public had no complaints. Equal percentages of the public (16%) say the 2008 campaign and the Libby verdict were over-covered. Nearly as many (13%) say the same about the lottery jackpot drawing. Nine percent point to Iraq, while very few name the Walter Reed story or the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys.
The Walter Reed story was the most under-covered story in the eyes of the public. Fully 24% say it received too little coverage. Democrats were slightly more interested than Republicans in hearing more about this story, but even among Republicans 21% say the story deserved more coverage. Sixteen percent of the public believes the U.S. attorney firings should have received more coverage, and 13% say the same about the war in Iraq. Fewer than 10% say they wanted to hear more about the Libby verdict, the 2008 campaign or the lottery jackpot.
The Walter Reed Audience
Democrats were somewhat more likely than Republicans to follow the Walter Reed story very closely (36% vs. 28%, respectively). Even so, among both Democrats and Republicans roughly two-thirds were paying at least fairly close attention to the story. Independents lagged behind slightly — 59% were paying close attention. While the large gender gap in interest in the Iraq war persists, the Walter Reed story drew in almost as many women as men (28% vs. 34%, respectively, paid very close attention to this story). In fact, the Walter Reed story was tied with Iraq among women as the most closely followed story of the week. Men, on the other hand, were much more likely to name Iraq than Walter Reed as the story they followed most closely.
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.