Study: 2008 campaign is top news story

Iraq comes in second

Politics eclipsed the Iraq war as the top story in recent news coverage as U.S. media attention focused on the presidential race, according to a new study.

Campaign coverage that had paid more attention to Democrats than Republicans in the first three months of the year became more evenly split between the parties, the report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism also found.

Researchers examined more than 18,000 stories from 13 newspapers, eight radio outlets, five online sites, three cable-news channels and both morning and evening network newscasts. The center deemed its study "the most comprehensive ongoing audit of the American press."

In April, May and June, coverage of the war and related issues made up just under 15% of news reports, compared to 22% for the first quarter.

The study attributed the change to a falloff in policy coverage across all media that occurred after May 24, when Congress approved war funding without including troop withdrawal timetables.

Reporting on events in Iraq made up 6.7% of the total so-called newshole, compared to 9% devoted to the 2008 campaign, the study found. Additional media attention was paid to the Iraq policy debate (6.6%) and the war's homefront effect (1.5%).

There continues to be "clear differences in the news judgments" of the cable channels, the center said. As in the previous quarter, Fox News Channel devoted roughly half as much coverage to the war, 8%, compared to CNN's 18% and MSNBC's 15%.

Calls to Fox seeking comment were not returned.

In overall political coverage by the media, the study found that Democrats and Republicans received nearly the same coverage, 42% vs. 41%, respectively, compared to the 64%-24% Democratic-Republican split the previous quarter.

Barack Obama drew the most coverage among Democratic presidential contenders, taking the last-quarter lead from Hillary Rodham Clinton and with John Edwards a distant third. But mentions of Edwards rose while coverage of Obama and Clinton dropped.

Coverage of leading Republican contenders John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney was more evenly split, the study said.

Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage made immigration the biggest topic on conservative talk radio in the second quarter with their opposition to a reform bill. Immigration came in as the fourth-biggest story for media in general, with 6% of coverage.

Other top-10 stories included the Virginia Tech shootings at 5% of coverage and, at 2% each, the Don Imus controversy, Iran and the fired U.S. attorneys. The Palestinian conflict received 1%.

"Paris Hilton is no Anna Nicole Smith," the center said, noting that her "jailhouse drama" was a largely one-week story that failed to make the list of most-covered events. That compares to the No. 8 first-quarter ranking earned by Smith's death and the dispute over her baby's custody.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, formerly affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, joined the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., last year.