Summary of Findings
Four years into the Iraq war, most Americans say they have little or no confidence in the information they receive – from either the military or the media – about how things are going on the ground. Fewer than half (46%) say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence that the U.S. military is giving the public an accurate picture of the situation, and even fewer (38%) are confident in the press’s portrayal of the war.
Public confidence in both institutions is much lower now than at the outset of the war. In March 2003 – in the first week of U.S. troop deployment in Iraq – fully 85% said they had at least a fair amount of confidence in military information, and nearly as many, 81%, were confident that the press was giving an accurate picture of the war. The public’s response to both military and press coverage of the first Gulf War in 1991 was similarly favorable.
On the negative side, 21% now say they have no confidence in military reports, while 27% have no confidence in press reports on the war. At the start of the war, virtually nobody expressed such views.
Opinion about how these institutions portray the war has mirrored the public’s perception of how well the war is going overall. Fully 90% of the public said that the war effort was going “very well” or “fairly well” in the early days of the invasion compared with 40% who express this view today.
While Democrats, Republicans and independents all express less confidence in the information they are receiving about Iraq today, there is now a substantial partisan divide in how these two institutions are viewed. The vast majority of Republicans (73%) remain at least somewhat confident in the military’s portrayal of how the war is going, compared with just 32% of Democrats. At the outset of the war, the partisan gap was far less pronounced.
Conversely, there has been a greater decline in Republican confidence in the accuracy of media reports on the war. In March 2003, eight-in ten Americans generally trusted press reports and there was no difference of opinion across party lines. Today, fewer than a third of Republicans (29%) express confidence in what they are hearing from the press, while about half of Democrats (51%) remain confident in the news from Iraq.
Independents have become skeptical of the information they are getting from both institutions. The share of independents who express at least a fair amount of confidence in military portrayals of the war is down from 83% to 39% since the start of the war, and their confidence in the accuracy of press reports has declined from 81% to 34%.
Iraq Still Tops News Interest
While 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 focused on 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 sailors 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.
But 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
Despite 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 which 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.
Tracking 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.
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.