Summary of Findings
News about an Atlanta man infected with a dangerous form of tuberculosis drew a large audience last week. The saga of the man’s illness and his travels abroad was the second most closely followed news story of the week – trailing only the situation in Iraq. Nearly a quarter of the public (24%) paid very close attention to the tuberculosis story and 23% said it was the story they followed most closely. Public interest was fed by intense media coverage of the story. It was the most heavily covered news story of the week, comprising 12% of the national newshole.
Interest in news about the infected man and his travels did not reach the level of the SARS outbreak of 2003. In May of that year, 39% of the public was paying very close attention to news about SARS, though by June that number had fallen to 28%. Older Americans and those living in the Northeast and South are among the most interested in news about the TB saga. In addition, women are more likely than men to list this as the story they were following most closely last week.
Interest in the situation in Iraq remained high last week. Three-in-ten Americans followed events in Iraq very closely and 25% said this was the single news story they followed more closely than any other. The public continues to pay closer attention to events in Iraq than to the Iraq policy debate: 20% followed the policy debate very closely and 7% listed it as their top story. The news media split its Iraq coverage last week among events on the ground (7%) and the impact of the war at home (4%), including coverage of Cindy Sheehan’s decision to put her anti-war efforts on hold, and the Iraq policy debate (4%).
These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interst 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.
Public Still Focused on Democrats
Attention to the 2008 presidential campaign fell off slightly last week: 16% of the public paid very close attention to news about the campaign and 9% said it was the story they followed most closely. The campaign was the second most heavily covered news story of the week taking up 9% of the overall newshole.
When asked which candidate they had heard the most about in the news recently, the public named Democratic candidates over Republican ones by a better than four-to-one margin (54% vs. 13%). Even among Republicans, the Democratic candidates come out on top – 43% of Republicans name one of the leading Democratic candidates, compared with 28% who name a Republican. The GOP candidates have gained some recognition within their own party in recent weeks. A month ago, only 17% of Republicans named a GOP candidate when asked who they had heard the most about lately.
Hillary Clinton is the candidate who continues to get the most campaign buzz with the public. Nearly a third of Americans (32%) say she is the candidate they have heard the most about in the news recently. Barack Obama comes in second with 20% of the public naming him as the candidate they’ve heard the most about lately. The gap between Clinton and Obama has narrowed somewhat since late April when 41% named Clinton and 23% named Obama. Only 2% of the public says John Edwards is the candidate they’ve heard the most about recently (basically unchanged from late April).
On the GOP side, Fred Thompson’s public ruminations about whether or not he will join the race for president raised his visibility with the public. Four percent of the public – and 8% of Republicans – named Thompson as the candidate they had heard the most about lately, placing him on a par with Rudy Giuliani. Mitt Romney is named by 3% of the public, and John McCain is named by 2%.
The public has remained more focused on Democratic candidates than Republicans in spite of the fact that news organizations are now providing more coverage to Republican candidates than Democrats. In May, 57% of the coverage was devoted to Republican candidates and only 30% was focused on Democrats, according to data from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
During the first three months of the year, media coverage of the campaign focused much more heavily on the Democratic field than on the GOP candidates (61% vs. 24%). In April, the balance of coverage was similar – 54% of campaign news focused mostly on Democratic candidates, and 28% focused on Republicans.
Too Little Coverage of Darfur
Two foreign policy stories rounded out the news index for the week. The historic talks between the United States and Iran regarding the situation in Iraq were followed very closely by 19% of the public. Only 3% said this was the story they followed most closely. Interest in U.S.-Iranian relations was higher in February of this year when tensions were mounting between the two nations.
Darfur was back in the news last week as President Bush announced that the U.S. would impose new sanctions against Sudan. Only 12% of the public followed news about Darfur very closely and 2% listed this as their most closely followed story. However, there are signs that the public would like to hear more about the violence in Darfur. When asked whether news organizations are giving too much, too little, or the right amount of coverage to ethnic violence in Darfur, a plurality of the public (49%), says the issue is getting too little coverage. Only 10% say Darfur has gotten too much coverage and 27% say it has gotten the right amount of coverage.
None of the other top stories of the week are viewed as being under-covered. Fully a third of the public says the 2008 presidential campaign is receiving too much coverage (only 12% say it is not getting enough coverage). More than a quarter (26%) say news about the Atlanta man with tuberculosis was over-covered (only 14% say too little coverage).
In evaluating coverage of the war in Iraq, there are clear partisan patterns. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say events in Iraq have been over-covered (31% vs. 14%) while Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say the war has gotten too little coverage (32% vs. 16%). The same pattern can be seen on coverage of the Iraq policy debate.
While a plurality of the public (45%) says news organizations gave the right amount of coverage to the recent talks between the U.S. and Iran, nearly a third say this story received too little coverage.
About the News Interest Index
The News Interst 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 Interst 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.