Decline in Iraq news may have boosted U.S. opinion

WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - A recent decline in U.S. news coverage from Iraq coincides with improved public opinion about the war just as the 2008 presidential campaign heads to an early showdown, a study released on Wednesday said.

The study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism said the volume of coverage from Iraq fell from 8 percent of all news stories in the first six months of 2007 to 5 percent between June and October due mainly to a decline in news accounts of daily attacks.

The falloff coincided with a 14 percentage point climb -- from 34 to 48 percent -- in the number of Americans who believe the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going either fairly or very well, according to Pew.

Pew researchers examined 1,109 news stories from Iraq from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 by 40 news outlets including newspapers, Web sites and television and radio networks.

Data from the study, entitled "Portrait from Iraq: How the Press Has Covered Events on the Ground," does not specifically identify the drop in press coverage as a cause of brightening public opinion about the Iraq war.

But Pew project director, Tom Rosenstiel, said declining coverage from Iraq, which follows a sharp fall in news about the Iraq policy debate in Washington, has likely played an important role.

"The report suggests the press has covered Iraq fairly steadily, with some ups and downs, and that's had an effect on public opinion," Rosenstiel told Reuters.

The study was published as other polling data has shown the Iraq war issue receding slightly as a voter issue in the presidential campaign, which will see its first contest in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.

"The people enjoying some respite from Iraq are probably now the candidates for president ... because Americans appear to be less concerned with Iraq as an issue in the campaign than they were a few months ago," Rosenstiel said.

The war in Iraq dominated U.S. news before June as President George W. Bush poured extra combat troops into the country in a bid to stabilize Baghdad and its environs.

News coverage, particularly accounts of daily attacks, began declining as violence levels dropped in late summer and early autumn. Pew said Iraq news resurged in October but mainly because of the controversy surrounding the Blackwater security firm and its alleged role in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

A later Pew analysis of November news stories found a renewed decline in volume and signs of a more promising tone as coverage focused on declining violence and the apparent success of Bush's so-called troop "surge."

"There are signs that November represented something of a turning point in coverage from Iraq. Whether it proves to be a temporary one will depend on the course of events," the study said.

Editing by Philip Barbara