Gas prices, Iraq hottest stories

While the Iraq war remained the most consistently monitored story by US media consumers through most of 2007, the public found the rise in gasoline prices and various natural and man-made disasters more compelling, according to a new survey released here on Wednesday by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press. Media consumers named the war as their first or second most closely watched story each week for all but four of the 46 weeks covered by the survey.

But according to the survey, the percentage of the public who said they were following Iraq “very closely” peaked last January at 40 per cent and has since fallen to 28 per cent. By contrast, 52 per cent of respondents said they were following the rising price of gasoline “very closely” last May, and 45 per cent said they were following the shootings of 33 students at Virginia Tech University “very closely” the previous month.

Also attracting as much or more attention than the war in Iraq among media consumers were the collapse of a freeway bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in late July (45 per cent) and the California wildfires that destroyed scores of homes in October (40 per cent). The survey, a new initiative of the Pew Centre and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, sought to compare what news drew the most interest from the public each week (the “News Interest Index”, or NII) with the stories to which the mainstream media — including newspapers, network and cable television, radio, and their online news sites — devoted the most time or space (the “News Coverage Index”, or NCI).

The story that received the greatest amount of coverage by the media for any one week of the year, according to the NCI, was the Virginia massacre. During the week of Apr. 15-20, it claimed 51 per cent of the entire national “newshole”; that is, all of the space devoted to news in a given media outlet. The California wildfires ranked second, accounting for 38 per cent of the national newshole during the week of Oct. 21-26, while the debate over the performance of the administration’s “surge” policy in Iraq accounted for 36 per cent of the newshole during the week of Sept. 9-14.

With one exception, all of the other major stories — those that accounted for more than 15 per cent of the weekly national newshole — covered domestic events. They included the racist remarks of a prominent media talk-show host (26 per cent); the bridge collapse (25 per cent); the administration’s firing of Justice Department attorneys and the lewdness scandal involving a US senator (18 per cent). In the most recent week surveyed by the NCI, Dec. 9-14, the 2008 presidential campaign, which is likely to dominate the news in the coming year, took up 25 per cent of the newshole.

The one exception to the dominance of domestic stories was the media’s coverage of political turmoil in Pakistan earlier this fall. It claimed 17 per cent of the national newshole during the week of Nov. 4-9. While those stories corresponded with the results of the NII — that is, the stories of greatest interest to media consumers — there were significant disconnects between the two indices.

Significantly, during the past six weeks, the percentage of respondents who have said they are following the war “very closely” has dropped to below 30 per cent for the first time. — IPS