Summary of Findings
Many Americans say they are hearing too much about Barack Obama in these final days of the 2008 presidential election – just as they did last summer – but a similar percentage now says the same about Sarah Palin. However, the public’s complaints notwithstanding, a relatively small amount of media coverage was devoted to the vice-presidential candidates last week. There continued to be much greater coverage of the presidential candidates, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Four-in-ten (41%) now say they’ve been hearing too much about Obama; only 10% say they’ve been hearing too little about him. That’s down slightly from 48% in early August. But as many or more Americans (46%) say they’ve been hearing too much about Palin, though she has generally received much less media coverage than either Obama or John McCain.
Far fewer Americans (31%) say they’ve been hearing too much about McCain. In fact, a plurality (45%) says they have been hearing the right amount about the GOP presidential nominee. Roughly one-in-five (22%) say they have been hearing too little about McCain.
In contrast to Palin, very few (20%) say they’ve been hearing too much about Joe Biden. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) say they have been hearing too little about Biden, while roughly the same proportion (37%) say they have been hearing the right amount about him.
Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say they’ve been hearing too much about Palin. Even so, three-in-ten Republicans (29%) say they’ve been hearing too much about the Alaska governor.
Fully two-thirds of Republicans say they’ve been hearing too much about Obama, while only 19% of Democrats agree. The vast majority of Democrats (73%) say they’ve been hearing the right amount about Obama.
Palin’s Wardrobe, SNL Appearance Register Widely with Public
While Obama was the most heavily covered candidate last week, news coverage of Palin was up significantly from the previous week. According to the Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), Palin was featured prominently in 22% of campaign news stories, compared to 8% one week earlier. Obama was featured in 61% of campaign stories, and McCain was featured in 50%. Increased coverage of Palin was fueled, at least in part, by the controversy surrounding the amount of money the Republican National Committee had spent on her wardrobe.
The flap over Palin’s clothes registered widely with the public. Fully 52% heard a lot about the party’s expenditure of about $150,000 at high end stores for Palin and her family. Another 27% heard a little about this, and 20% heard nothing at all.
News about Palin’s wardrobe was as widely heard about as news that Colin Powell had endorsed Obama for president. Roughly half of the public (49%) heard a lot about the Powell endorsement and 39% heard a little about it. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to have heard about each of these events. Fully 60% of Democrats heard a lot about Palin’s wardrobe (compared with 43% of Republicans), and 56% of Democrats heard a lot about Powell’s endorsement of Obama (vs. 46% of Republicans).
More than half of the public (56%) heard a lot about Palin’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” while 14% heard a little about this. As many Americans said they heard about Palin’s SNL appearance as said they heard about her being chosen as John McCain’s running mate at the end of August.
In other campaign news, 43% heard a lot about Biden’s comment that Obama would be tested by an international crisis early in his presidency. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to hear about Biden’s comment (51% vs. 41% heard a lot). As has consistently been the case, Biden received much less media coverage last week than did Palin, according to Pew’s PEJ. Roughly four-in-ten Americans (42%) heard a lot about the Obama campaign raising $150 million in the month of September.
Views of Obama have become more stable in recent weeks. More than half of the public (52%) now says their opinion of the Democratic nominee has not changed in recent days. Among those whose views have changed, 24% say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable recently, while 21% say their view of him has become less favorable.
Views of McCain have also become more settled. Half of the public says their opinion of McCain has not changed in recent days; 47% report some change. For the sixth consecutive week, changing opinions of McCain are more negative than positive. In the current poll, conducted October 24-27, only 19% say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable in recent days, while 28% say their opinion of him has become less favorable.
Similarly, changing views of Palin continue to be more negative. One-in-five say their opinion of Palin has become more favorable in recent days while 33% say their opinion of her has become less favorable. About four-in-ten (43%) say their view of Palin has not changed recently.
Most (57%) say their opinion of Biden hasn’t changed in recent days. Among those whose view of Biden has changed, more say their opinion has become less favorable (23%) than more favorable (14%).
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 were collected from October 20-26 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected October 24-27 from a nationally representative sample of 1,008 adults.
Public Still Learns More from News Coverage than from Commercials
In the presidential campaign, people say they have learned more from news reports on television than from the candidates’ television commercials. This is especially true when it comes to learning where the candidates stand on the issues. Fully 72% of the public says news reports give them a better idea of the candidates’ issue positions, while 14% say they learn more from campaign commercials.
The public also says that news reports are a better way of learning about who the candidates are as people: 66% say news reports give them a better idea of what the candidates are like, while only 22% point to the candidates’ commercials. When these questions were asked in October 1992, the findings were strikingly similar. Strong majorities said news reports were a better way of learning about the candidates issue positions and personalities.
Voters are divided over the value of political polling. While 43% say reporting on who is ahead in the polls is a bad thing for the country, nearly as many (38%) say this type of reporting is a good thing. Some 14% say reporting on the polls is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Twenty years ago, voters felt much same way about reporting on the horse race. In late October 1988, 45% said reporting on the polls was a bad thing for the country, 38% said it was a good thing, and 12% said this type of reporting was neither good nor bad.
Today, among the general public, Republicans and Democrats have dramatically different views on the value of the polls. While 60% of Republicans say reporting on the polls is a bad thing for the country, an identical percentage of Democrats say reporting on polls is a good thing. On balance, independents say reporting on the polls is a bad thing rather than a good thing (49%-33%).
Campaign, Economy Continue to Dominate News Interest
Public interest in the campaign fell off somewhat last week – 44% followed news about the campaign very closely down from 61% the previous week. Interest was lower among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Democrats continue to track the campaign more closely than do Republicans: 52% of Democrats vs. 43% of Republicans followed campaign news very closely last week.
Four-in-ten Americans listed the campaign as the single news story they were following more closely than any other last week. The national news media, meanwhile, focused heavily on the campaign last week, devoting 52% of its overall coverage to election news, according to Pew’s PEJ.
While the public continued to pay close attention to the economy, the percent following economic news very closely (52%) was down significantly from the previous week (62%). Roughly one-in-three (34%) listed the economy as their most closely followed news story, while more (40%) named the campaign. For the previous five weeks, the economy had been the public’s most closely followed news story.
The national news media devoted 22% of its overall coverage to the economy crisis last week. Coverage of the economy has fallen off significantly in recent weeks. The week of September 29, when Congress was debating the financial bailout package, stories about the economic crisis accounted for 45% of news.
In evaluating the way the media has been covering the economy, a significant minority of the public (40%) says news reports are making the U.S. economy seem worse than it actually is. Only 11% say news reports are making the economy seem better than it really is, and 45% say they are showing the situation about the way it really is.
Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say news reports on the economy make the situation seem worse than it actually is (55% vs. 27%). A majority of Democrats (56%) say news reports on the economy paint an accurate picture. Independents are divided with 42% saying news reports make things seem worse than they are and 43% saying the reports show the situation about the way it really is.
In other news last week, three-in-ten Americans (29%) paid very close attention to news about the Iraq war, and 6% listed this as the story they were following most closely. The national news media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to the situation in Iraq. The public was equally interested in news about the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan: 28% followed this story very closely and 4% listed it as their most closely followed story.
One-in-five Americans are closely tracking news about local and statewide elections (20% very closely). The national media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to these local races last week.
Interest in the Major League Baseball Playoffs and the World Series is not as high as it was last year. Only 12% are following baseball news very closely. At this time last year, 20% were following very 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.journalism.org.