Public, media losing sight of Iraq, study finds

Only 28 percent know that nearly 4,000 U.S. troops have been killed

Twenty-eight percent of the public is aware that nearly 4,000 U.S. personnel have died in Iraq over the past five years, while nearly half thinks the death tally is 3,000 or fewer and 23 percent think it is higher, according to an opinion survey released yesterday.

The survey, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that public awareness of developments in the Iraq war has dropped precipitously since last summer, as the news media have paid less attention to the conflict. In earlier surveys, about half of those asked about the death tally responded correctly.

Related Pew surveys have found that the number of news stories devoted to the war has sharply declined this year, along with professed public interest. “Coverage of the war has been virtually absent,” said Pew survey research director Scott Keeter, totaling about 1 percent of the news hole between Feb. 17 and 23.

The Iraq-associated median for 2007, he said, was 15 percent of all news stories, with major spikes when President Bush announced a “surge” in forces in January of that year and when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, testified before Congress in September.

“We try not to make any causal statements about the relationship between the absence of news and what the public knows,” Keeter said. “But there’s certainly a correlation between the two. People are not seeing news about fatalities, and there isn’t much in the news about the war, whether it be military action or even political discussion related to it.”

Although Iraq topped the list of the public’s most closely followed news stories in all but five weeks during the first half of 2007, according to Pew’s research, interest fell rapidly in the fall, and Iraq has not held the top spot since October. That corresponded with a sharp drop in the rate of U.S. casualties in Iraq and increased news coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign.

More track Ledger than war
During the last week in January, 36 percent of those surveyed said they were most closely following campaign news, while 14 percent expressed the most interest in the stock market and 12 percent in the death of actor Heath Ledger. In contrast, 6 percent said they were most closely following coverage of Iraq.

Compared with those Americans surveyed who correctly identified U.S. casualties at around 4,000 (3,975 as of yesterday morning, according to the Pentagon), 84 percent identified Oprah Winfrey as the talk-show host supporting Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for the Democratic presidential nomination, and 50 percent knew that Hugo Chavez is president of Venezuela.

All education levels in the recent survey were similarly uninformed, Keeter said. The Pew “Political Knowledge Update” was based on nationwide telephone interviews of 1,003 adults conducted Feb. 28 through March 2. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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