Summary of Findings

As Barack Obama prepared for a major international trip last week, a controversial magazine cover here at home drew more public attention. Fully four-in-ten Americans heard a lot about a satirical cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker magazine showing Obama and his wife in the Oval Office — the candidate dressed as a Muslim and his wife holding a machine gun. A quarter of the public heard a little about the magazine cover and only 33% heard nothing at all about it.

Among those who actually saw the Obama cover — roughly half of the public (51%) — the verdict was decidedly mixed. While 50% say it was okay for the New Yorker to publish the cover, 45% say it was not okay.

Attitudes about the cover differ sharply by party. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans who saw the cover say it was okay for the magazine to publish it, 65% of Democrats disagree. Independents are much closer to Republicans in their views on this issue: 59% say what the New Yorker did was okay 36% say it was not.

A majority of those who saw the cover (54%) think it was offensive. Relatively few (27%) think it was funny. Again, there are significant differences between Republicans and Democrats. An overwhelming majority of Democrats (70%) find the image offensive. This compares with only 41% of Republicans. More than half of Democrats (53%) say the cover was racist. Only 19% of Republicans agree.

On balance, however, Republicans do not think the cover was clever — 40% say it was, and 58% disagree. Only 22% of Democrats find the cover clever, 77% say it was not. Independents are evenly divided over this — 48% say it was clever, 51% say it was not. A third of independents (34%) found the cover to be funny as did 31% of Republicans. Only 17% of Democrats agreed.

Obama Continues to Dominate Coverage and Public Visibility

In other campaign news last week, 34% of the public heard a lot about the first leg of Obama’s tour of the Middle East and parts of Europe. Given the extensive media coverage of the trip, that number is certain to rise by next week. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) Campaign Coverage Index, Obama’s trip was the top campaign story last week.

Obama and John McCain both addressed the NAACP’s annual convention last week. McCain’s appearance attracted a fair amount of media coverage, but failed to register with the public. Only 13% of the public heard a lot about this; fully 47% heard nothing at all.

Overall, coverage of Obama continued to outpace that of McCain by a substantial margin. According to PEJ, Obama was featured prominently in 83% of all campaign stories last week while McCain was featured in 51% of the stories. The imbalance in media coverage is reflected in the candidates’ public visibility. When asked which candidate they have heard the most about in the news in the last week or so, 76% named Obama while only 10% named McCain.

Public Focused on Economic News

While the campaign once again dominated national news coverage last week, the economy took center stage in terms of public interest. Three-in-ten Americans paid very close attention to news about the presidential campaign last week, however, only 11% listed the campaign as the single news story they were following more closely than any other — putting it in fourth place behind the economy, the troubles facing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the situation in Iraq.

Fully 45% of the public followed news about the economy very closely and 29% listed this as their most closely followed story. News of the financial crisis facing mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the government’s efforts to shore up those institutions was followed very closely by 30% of Americans. Another 33% followed this story fairly closely and 15% listed this as their most closely followed story of the week. Republicans and Democrats followed the mortgage story in roughly equal proportions, but Democrats paid considerably closer attention than Republicans to news about the general state of the economy. For its part, the national media devoted 9% of its overall coverage to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and 9% to the U.S. economy.

In addition to following these major economic storylines, the public was highly attuned to several of last week’s more specific business stories. Nearly half (48%) heard a lot about bank failures and bank runs at the IndyMac Bank Corporation. Those living in the West, where IndyMac is headquartered, were slightly more likely to have heard a lot about this story. Even so, nearly half of those in the Northeast, South and Midwest heard a lot about the bank’s troubles.

More than a third of the public (35%) heard a lot about the buyout of Anheuser-Busch by Belgium’s InBev. And nearly as many (32%) heard a lot about General Motors’ most recent wave of restructuring and cutbacks.

Increased Interest in Iraq and Afghanistan

Interest in the war in Iraq was higher last week than it has been in several months. A third of the public followed news about Iraq very closely, up from 24% the previous week, and 13% listed this as their most closely followed news story. Interest in the situation in Afghanistan was also up significantly. More than one-in-four Americans (27%) followed news about the military effort in Afghanistan very closely, and another 33% paid fairly close attention. This is up from 19% who followed the story very closely the previous week. Still, only 5% listed Afghanistan as their most closely followed story.

Republicans and Democrats followed Iraq news in roughly equal proportions. However, Republicans were somewhat more likely than Democrats to follow the situation in Afghanistan closely. The media devoted slightly more of its coverage to Afghanistan than to Iraq. Overall, coverage of these two military conflicts accounted for 5% of the national newshole.

Closer to home, 23% of the public paid very close attention to news about U.S. energy policy. Another 22% paid fairly close attention to this story and fully a third didn’t follow it closely at all.

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 July 14-20 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected July 18-21 from a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults.

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