WASHINGTON — Only 28 percent of the American 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 Wednesday.
The survey, by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that public awareness of developments in the Iraq war has dropped steeply since last summer, as the news media 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.
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.
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 about 4,000 (3,975 as of Wednesday morning, according to the Pentagon), 84 percent identified Oprah Winfrey as the talk-show host supporting Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois 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.