Summary of Findings
John McCain’s campaign for president has been flying under the news media’s radar since he sewed up the Republican nomination in early March. In recent weeks, he has received less news coverage – and has been consistently less visible to the public – than either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Nonetheless, far more Americans say the news they have been hearing about McCain is generally positive than say the same about coverage of Obama or Clinton. By a margin of 36%-11%, more Americans say the news they have been hearing about McCain has been mostly positive rather than mostly negative; 44% say the news about the Arizona senator has been mixed.
Perceptions of Clinton’s press coverage are strikingly different. Fully 36% say the news they have been hearing about the former first lady has been mostly negative, while just 13% say it has been mostly positive. A 47% plurality says there has been a mix of positive and negative news.
Views of Obama’s coverage are evenly divided between those who see it as mostly positive (21%) and mostly negative. A narrow majority (53%) say it has been a mixture of both.
The survey was conducted April 11-14, following the initial news reports of Obama’s controversial comments about working-class voters. At a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama said that small-town voters, embittered over their economic circumstances, cling to religion, guns, and anti-immigrant beliefs.
Obama remained the most visible presidential candidate last week, although Clinton received more press coverage, according to Project for Excellence in Journalism. Roughly half of the public (51%) said Obama is the candidate they had heard the most about in the news last week. A quarter (24%) named Clinton and 8% named McCain. According to the PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, Clinton was featured prominently in 56% of all campaign news stories last week; Obama was featured in 46%; and McCain was featured in 35% of campaign coverage.
Public interest in the campaign was largely unchanged from the past few weeks, and remains well below where it stood in mid-March, following the most recent major primary contests. Overall, 31% of Americans say they followed campaign news very closely. Roughly four-in-ten Democrats (39%) say they followed campaign news very closely compared with just 24% of Republicans.
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 the most recent week, data relating to news coverage was collected from April 7-13 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected April 11-14 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults.
Plurality Sees Three News Anchors as ‘About the Same’
Amid declining ratings for the nightly network news broadcasts, and increasing controversy over Katie Couric’s tenure as the CBS News anchor, nearly half of the public (49%) says that the three nightly news anchors are about the same. Somewhat fewer (41%) say that some news anchors are better than others.
Notably, there are no significant differences among those who say they watch the CBS, ABC or NBC evening news shows about whether news anchors are largely similar. A majority (56%) of those who watch the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric express this view, as do 53% of both those who watch ABC World News Tonight with Charles Gibson, and viewers of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Viewers of the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer are somewhat less likely than the audience for the big three networks to say all news anchors are alike. By a margin of 50%-39%, Lehrer’s viewers say some anchors are better than others.
People who expressed high interest in several news stories last week are more likely than others to make distinctions among the news anchors. Half of ‘high interest’ news consumers – a group constituting a third of the public – say some news anchors are better than others. That compares with just 36% of those who expressed less interest in the week’s news stories.
Petraeus Draws Small Audience
The Iraq policy debate was back in the news last week, as Gen. David Petraeus delivered his latest progress report on the war to members of Congress. The national news media devoted 10% of its coverage to the Iraq policy debate and another 4% to events on the ground in Iraq. Roughly one-in-five Americans (19%) paid very close attention to Petraeus’ appearance before Congress. Just 6% listed news about Petraeus as the single story they followed more closely than any other last week – ranking it fifth among the top six stories of the week.
There was greater public interest in news about Petreaus’ report to Congress last September. At that time, 25% said they were following the story very closely, while 14% listed it as their most closely followed story.
Public interest in the situation in Iraq remained largely unchanged last week. One-in-four Americans paid very close attention to the situation in Iraq last week and 14% said it was their top story for the week.
About one-in-five Americans (19%) paid very close attention to the recent spate of airline delays and cancellations; 8% said it was the story they followed most closely last week. The percentage of Americans following the airline story very closely has increased modestly from late March, when 14% were following very closely. Coverage of the story has increased significantly over that same time period (from 1% during the last week in March to 6% in the current survey).
The raid on a polygamist religious compound in Texas drew the very close attention of 14% of the public; 11% said this was the story they followed most closely. Women were twice as likely as men to list this as their most closely followed story (15% vs. 7%).
The public paid relatively little attention to protests along the route of the Olympic torch procession, in spite of a significant amount of news coverage of the protests. One-in-ten Americans (11%) followed the protests very closely and 4% listed this as their most closely followed story. The national media devoted 9% of its overall coverage to this story.
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.