Summary of Findings

On the eve of Barack Obama’s major speech on race and politics, most Americans said they had heard at least a little about the videos showing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright making racially-charged statements to his Chicago congregation.

At the time of the survey, however, there was greater public awareness of other recent campaign events. Last week, in fact, more Americans said they had heard a lot about Geraldine Ferraro’s statements asserting that Obama’s race has been a major advantage in his campaign than had heard about videos of Wright preaching to his congregation; 40% said they had heard a lot about Ferraro’s statements, while 31% had heard a lot about videos of Wright’s sermons.

Looking at the major campaign events of the past month, more Americans heard about accusations that Obama had plagiarized sections of a speech by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick than heard about the Wright tapes. Fewer heard about Obama’s connections to Tony Rezko. The most widely known campaign story over this period of time involved reports that John McCain may have had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist – 48% of the public heard a lot about this.

In other major campaign news last week, 37% of the public heard a lot about Clinton’s suggestions that she might consider Obama as her running mate. Nearly half of the public (46%) heard a little about this while 17% have heard nothing at all. Roughly a third (34%) have heard a lot about the debate over how to handle the outcome of the Democratic primaries in Florida and Michigan; 43% have heard a little about this and 22% have heard nothing at all.

Obama was by far the leading newsmaker during a week where dueling racial controversies drove much of the campaign news coverage. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index, Obama was featured prominently in 67% of all campaign stories while Clinton was featured in 51%. McCain was the featured newsmaker in only 15% of campaign stories.

Obama also came out ahead of Clinton as the most visible candidate in the eyes of the public. Fully 57% of the public said Obama was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news in the past week, while 26% named Clinton. Only 4% of the public and 8% of Republicans named McCain as the candidate they had heard the most about in the news last week. The previous week Obama and Clinton were in a virtual tie in terms of public visibility (37% named Clinton, 38% named Obama), with McCain trailing far behind both Democrats (6%).

Overall, the campaign accounted for 27% of the national newshole last week. Public interest in the campaign remained high – 40% followed the story very closely and 37% listed this as the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. In another measure of public engagement in the campaign, an overwhelming majority of Americans are talking about the campaign with family and friends. Fully 84% say the campaign has come up in conversations with people they know.

Spitzer Situation Sad, Not Funny

The media’s focus was split last week between the presidential race and the scandal involving New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. The Spitzer scandal is the first story this year to draw the national media’s attention away from the campaign. Coverage of Spitzer accounted for 23% of the national newshole (compared with 27% for the campaign). Cable TV news devoted 34% of its coverage to the story.

The vast majority of Americans knew little or nothing about Spitzer prior to last week’s revelations about his involvement with a prostitution ring. Nearly half of the public (47%) knew nothing at all about Spitzer before last week and 33% knew only a little about the New York governor. One-in-five (19%) said they knew a lot about Spitzer.

Most Americans (68%) view the Spitzer situation as sad while very few (17%) see it as funny. Notably, men are more than twice as likely as women to say the situation is funny (24% of men vs. 11% of women). The public is much more evenly divided over the importance of the scandal. While 47% say it is important, slightly more (51%) disagree. Roughly equal proportions of Republicans (52%) and Democrats (49%) view the situation as important. Similarly, 47% of Americans say the Spitzer story is interesting, while 51% say it is not interesting.

Young people stand out in their views on Spitzer’s troubles – they are much more likely than their older counterparts to view the situation as both interesting and funny. Among those under age 30, 59% say the Spitzer story is interesting. This compares with 44% of those ages 30 and older. Nearly a third of young people (31%) say the story is funny compared with only 13% of those aged 30 and older. The under-30 crowd is also much less likely to see Spitzer’s predicament as sad.

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 March 10-16 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected March 14-17 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.

Mixed Reactions to Coverage of Spitzer Scandal

Overall, the press receives positive ratings for its coverage of the Spitzer scandal. A majority of Americans (56%) say the press has done an excellent (14%) or good (42%) job in covering the story, while 36% say the press has done only a fair (26%) or poor (10%) job. Notwithstanding, half of the public (53%) say press coverage devoted to Gov. Spitzer was excessive, while 35% say it received the right amount of coverage. Only 5% say the story has received too little coverage.

The public had a similar reaction to recent scandals involving racist remarks by radio’s Don Imus and news that NFL quarterback Michael Vick was involved in illegal dog fighting. For both of these stories about half of the public said the media had allotted too much coverage. Last year’s celebrity starlet scandals drew far greater negative reactions from the public. In July, fully 87% of Americans said that celebrity scandals involving Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan received too much coverage and just 8% said they received the right amount of media attention.

Both Republicans and Democrats offer positive ratings of the Spitzer coverage, with roughly six-in-ten of both groups calling the coverage excellent or good. With regards to the amount of news coverage devoted to the scandal, partisans also agree that on balance the story received too much coverage.

Spitzer Rivals ’08 Campaign for News Coverage and Public Interest

The heavy coverage of the Spitzer story got people talking last week. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (59%) say that revelations about Gov. Spitzer’s involvement in a prostitution ring has come up in conversation with the people they know, compared with 40% who say the scandal was not a topic of conversation.

Overall, 26% followed the Spitzer scandal very closely last week. That equals the level of public interest in the 2006 congressional page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley and is significantly higher than the percentage that followed the Larry Craig scandal very closely (19%).

In addition, 14% said that Spitzer was the story they followed most closely last week. The overwhelming majority of this group (80%) says they talked about the Spitzer scandal with the people they know.

Overall, 25% of Americans paid very close attention to recent ups and down in the stock market and 11% said this was the single news story they followed more closely than any other. The media devoted 6% of its overall coverage to the stock market and other economic issues. Interest in the market is comparable to the level registered in late January when 29% followed the market very closely.

Stories about the murder of a female student at the University of North Carolina attracted the very close attention of one-in-six Americans (17%); 7% said this was the story they followed most closely. Southerners followed this story more closely than people from other regions of the country.

Public interest in the Iraq war is virtually unchanged from earlier in the year. Last week, 29% of Americans followed news about Iraq very closely and 8% said it was the story they followed most closely.

An investigation that found small amounts of certain medicines in public drinking water received a modest amount of media coverage (3% of the overall newshole for the week). One-in-five Americans followed the story very closely and 4% listed it as their most closely followed story of the week.

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