Summary of Findings

Michael Vick’s legal troubles attracted a large news audience last week. One-in-four Americans followed the Vick story very closely and 18% said it was the single news story they followed more closely than any other. Overall, the public believes Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, has been treated fairly by the press, but there is a sharp racial divide on this issue. While 69% of whites say the press has been fair in the way it has covered this story, only 38% of blacks agree. A narrow majority of blacks (51%) say Vick has been treated unfairly by the media.

In spite of these differences, blacks and whites agree that the Vick story has been over-covered. Roughly half of whites (49%) and 56% of blacks say news organizations are giving too much coverage to this story. Very few whites or blacks say the story has received too little coverage (5% and 13%). Nearly four-in-ten whites (38%) and 28% of blacks say the Vick story has received about the right amount of coverage.

Blacks have paid closer attention than whites to this story as it has evolved over the past month. In late July, 32% of blacks vs. 20% of whites followed allegations that Vick had been involved in illegal dog fighting very closely. Similarly, this past week, as Vick agreed to plead guilty to the federal charges leveled against him, 32% of blacks paid very close attention compared to 22% of whites. Fully 37% of blacks listed Vick’s legal troubles as their most closely followed news story last week, making it by far the top news story of the week among blacks. For whites, the most closely followed stories were the floods in the Midwest and the situation in Iraq.

Americans are paying closer attention to Vick’s legal problems than they did to allegations of sexual assault against NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. In the summer of 2003, 17% of the public followed the allegations against Bryant very closely. Mike Tyson’s 1992 rape trial attracted more attention than either the Vick or Bryant stories — 32% of the public paid very close attention to that story.

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 August 19-24 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected August 24-27 from a nationally representative sample of 1,049 adults.

Floods and Iraq War Draw Large News Audiences

In other news this week, aside from the Vick story, the situation in Iraq and the devastating floods in the Midwest were the public’s most closely followed news stories. A third of Americans (34%) paid very close attention to the situation in Iraq and 17% listed this as their most closely followed news story. Roughly a quarter (27%) followed the floods very closely and 17% listed this as their most closely followed story. Interest in the floods was particularly high in those states that were directly affected — 41% of Midwesterners followed the story very closely.

Though Hurricane Dean received slightly more press coverage than the Midwest floods, the public paid closer attention to the floods. Fewer than one-in-five (18%) followed news about the hurricane very closely, 11% listed this as their top news story of the week. Hurricanes that impact the U.S. directly invariably draw a larger audience than do storms, such as Dean, that hit the Caribbean or Mexico.

Interest in the 2008 presidential campaign remained about where it has been throughout the summer months. Roughly one-in-five Americans (22%) followed campaign news very closely last week, with Democrats paying closer attention than Republicans. One-in-ten listed the campaign as their most closely followed story of the week.

The Iraq policy debate, the most heavily-covered news story of the week, drew the very close attention of 25% of the public. While 12% of the national newshole was devoted to this story, only 8% of the public said this was the story they followed most closely.

Figures in Iraq not Well Known

As the deadline approaches for a highly anticipated report on the effectiveness of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, still well under half of Americans (39%) are able to name General David Petraeus, the U.S. Commander there. The percentage of the public able to name Petraeus increased slightly from 30% in June. A similar percentage can now identify the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki (36%), up slightly from 27% at the beginning of the summer.

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