The ISIS Conflict Has Saturated the American Mind

Kurdish peshmerga forces patrol in Mahmoudiyah, Iraq, earlier this week, after taking control of the village from the Islamic State group. Kurdish peshmerga forces patrol in Mahmoudiyah, Iraq, earlier this week, after taking control of the village from the Islamic State group. Hadi Mizban/AP

In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 94 percent of Americans said they were following the news of the horrendous and tragic beheadings of American journalists at the hands of ISIS. That number is astounding, seeing how public knowledge of the news can often be lacking.  

The widening conflict in Syria and Iraq is clearly on the public's collective mind. In its latest national news quiz, the Pew Research Center finds that 67 percent of Americans can correctly indicate that ISIS controls territory in Syria. Compare that with only 38 percent of Americans who know who the Prime Minister of Israel is. On the quiz, the only topic Americans were better informed about was the minimum wage. Below are the full results of the poll. (Pew notes some "moderate differences" between Republicans and Democrats on correct answers. "Republicans tend to do somewhat better than Democrats overall," it states. Mainly, Republicans were more familiar with the Common Core and the fracking boom in North Dakota.)

The Pew news quiz, while in some ways trivial (it isn't an exhaustive survey of all the topics Americans should be aware of, so make comparisons warily), does indicate where the public's attention is. On last year's quiz, Americans scored highest on identifying Edward Snowden, who embodied the dominant news story of the year. 

Pew has found a growing national attention toward the Islamic State in other questionnaires as well. In September, it found Americans' concern growing over Islamic extremism, as seen in the chart below. 

Saturation news about issues such as ISIS and Edward Snowden's NSA leaks moves public opinion. In that September survey, Pew noted a reversal of a trend that had just been gaining momentum the year before. During the height of the Snowden coverage in the media, 47 percent of Americans said that protecting civil liberties was more important than security concerns relating to the war on terrorism. This year, with the proliferation of ISIS, that figure is at 35 percent. 

Does that mean that the average American is fickle? No. It's that people respond to the events unfolding around them. It's a reminder that a big enough news story can get masses to see the world differently.

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