Summary of Findings

While the media focused intently last week on the escalating debate over U.S. policy in Iraq, the public took a typical summer hiatus from the major news stories of the week. The Iraq war, rather than the policy debate, was the news story the public focused on most closely, but even attention to the war was down substantially from previous weeks. A quarter of the public paid very close attention to events in Iraq, down from 36% the week before and the lowest level recorded this year. Roughly the same proportion (24%) listed the war as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. Interest in the other ongoing news stories — the Iraq policy debate and the 2008 presidential campaign — was also somewhat lower than in previous weeks.

In addition to the hard news stories of the week, Harry Potter-mania became a news story of its own. The national media devoted 1% of its coverage for the week to news about the release of the newest Harry Potter movie and the upcoming release of the final book in the series. While the public wasn’t particularly interested in Potter news (only 8% followed very closely), a substantial minority (25%) say they or someone in their household plan to buy the new Harry Potter book when it comes out. In households with teenagers, fully 44% say they plan to buy the book. The public’s intentions may not translate into actual book sales after all the pre-release publicity dies down.

College graduates are much more likely than those who never attended college to say someone in their household plans to buy the new Harry Potter book (35% vs. 17%). Those age 65 and older are among the least likely to buy the book (11% say someone in their household will purchase it). Among those ages 50-64, however, 26% say they have plans to buy the new book.

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 July 8-13 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected July 13-16 from a nationally representative sample of 1,043 adults.

Campaign News Penetrates

In other news this week, the 2008 presidential campaign was the second most closely followed story: 17% of the public paid very close attention to campaign news and 16% listed this as the story they had followed most closely.

The media devoted 7% of its coverage to the campaign, with much of that coverage focused on problems within John McCain’s campaign operation. While public interest in the campaign this past week was below average for the year, the overriding message that McCain’s campaign is struggling came across to a majority of the public. When asked to name the Republican candidate whose campaign recently lost several top staffers and has had trouble raising money, 56% of the public pointed to McCain. Fewer than 15% named Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson, and 30% gave no answer. Republicans were somewhat more aware than Democrats or independents of McCain’s problems. Even so, majorities from each group correctly identified McCain (64% of Republicans, 56% of Democrats and 55% of independents).

A plurality of the public was also aware that Barack Obama’s campaign had raised more money in the second quarter of 2007 than any of the other Democratic candidates. Fully 45% identified Obama as the candidate who had raised the most money, 29% thought it was Hillary Clinton, 2% named John Edwards and 1% named Bill Richardson. Democrats were somewhat more likely than Republicans or independents to answer this question correctly (50% vs. 44% and 43%, respectively).

News of Al Qaeda Resurgence Makes Modest Impact

The Iraq policy debate and news about Al Qaeda drew roughly equal levels of public attention last week. One-in-five Americans paid very close attention to the debate in Washington over U.S. policy in Iraq and 11% listed this as the single news story they followed most closely. Coverage of the policy debate dwarfed all other major news stories last week — the national media devoted 20% of its coverage to this story.

Reports that Al Qaeda may be gaining strength drew the very close attention of 21% of the public. One-in-ten listed this as their top story of the week. The media devoted 4% of its coverage to the Al Qaeda news. Another 4% of the newshole was taken up with stories about the increased threat of domestic terrorism — fueled in large part by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s comments on this subject.

The Pakistani government’s raid on a mosque held by Islamic radicals barely registered with the public. Only 10% paid very close attention to this story and 3% listed it as their most closely followed news story. The media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to this story.

Relatively few Americans paid very close attention to news about the Live Earth event — a series of coordinated concerts that took place on July 7. Only 4% followed this very closely and another 11% paid fairly close attention; 4% listed this as their top story of the week. The news media devoted 1% of its coverage to news about the Live Earth concerts in the week following the event.

Democrats paid more attention to Live Earth than did Republicans: 23% of Democrats followed the story at least fairly closely, compared with only 8% of Republicans. Fully 69% of Republicans did not follow the story at all. In spite of relatively low interest in the event, a majority of Americans understood the purpose of Live Earth: 62% knew that it was intended to raise awareness about global warming. Republicans and Democrats were equally well-informed on this point.

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 opini
on 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