July 22, 2009

Health Care: Important, Interesting, But Hard to Follow

Summary of Findings

The debate over revamping the nation’s health care system is drawing increased public attention. A third (33%) say they are following the health care debate very closely, up from 24% the previous week. And while news coverage of health care also increased over the past week, a sizable minority of Americans (45%) say the issue is receiving too little coverage.

Nearly all Americans (95%) view the issue of health care reform as important. Substantial majorities also say this issue affects them personally (78%) and is interesting (72%). Yet health care reform also is an issue that most Americans find difficult to understand: 63% say it is hard to understand, while just 34% say it is easy to understand.

The latest weekly News Interest Index, conducted July 17-20 among 1,002 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that the debate over health care and news about the economy are the week’s top stories in terms of public interest; 22% each said they followed these stories more closely than any other.

The Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was the week’s most heavily covered news story, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. However, Sotomayor’s hearings did not register strongly with the public; just 20% say they tracked the Sotomayor story very closely, compared with 43% for news about the economy and 33% for the health care debate.

With health care legislation moving through Congress, coverage of the issue grew last week, accounting for 11% of all news coverage compared with 6% a week earlier. That is the most coverage of health care since PEJ began tracking news coverage in January 2007.

News coverage of Michael Jackson’s death declined sharply last week, according to PEJ, to just 2% of all news coverage from 17% a week earlier. Yet for the public, even the diminished amount of Jackson coverage was too much: 82% say the controversy surrounding Jackson’s death received too much coverage. That compares with 64% who said there was too much coverage of Jackson the week after he died. The proportion saying they tracked news about the controversy surrounding the pop star’s death very closely fell to 17% last week from 25% a week earlier.

Rising Criticism of Gov’t on Economy

The survey finds that as the public continues to track economic news closely, it has grown more critical of the government’s handling of the nation’s economic problems. For the first time since President Obama took office, as many say the government is on the wrong track (48%) as on the right track (46%) in handling the nation’s economic problems.

In May, 53% said the government was on the right track on the economy while 39% said it was on the wrong track. Notably, independents have grown much more critical of the government’s handling of the economy over the past two months. Currently, 57% of independents say the government is on the wrong track on the economy while 39% say it is on the right track. In May, by 49% to 41%, more independents expressed positive views of the government’s handling of the economy.

Democrats give the government very positive ratings for its handling of the economy, though the proportion saying it is on the wrong track has more than doubled – from 10% to 22% – since May. Republicans remain overwhelmingly critical of the government on this issue (78% wrong track today, 70% in May).

Health Care: Half Have Seen Ads

While the health care debate is drawing greater news coverage and public interest, it also is generating widespread advertising from groups on all sides of the issue. Fully half of Americans say they have seen or heard an ad on health care reform, while 47% say they have not seen any ads on the issue.

Notably, those who are following the debate over health care very closely are far more likely than those who are tracking the debate less closely to say they have seen or heard an ad on health care (72% vs. 42%).

Overall, about as many say they have seen or heard mostly negative ads (18%) on the subject of health care reform as say they have seen positive advertisements (16%); 14% say they have seen a mix of positive and negative ads. However, among those who are following the health care debate very closely, more have seen mostly negative ads (30%) than mostly positive ads (17%) about health care reform.

Too Much Michael Jackson

An overwhelming majority of the public (82%) says that the controversy surrounding Michael Jackson’s death has received too much coverage. Even among those who followed news about the pop singer more closely than any other story last week (17% of all Americans) close to two-thirds (65%) say there has been too much coverage of the pop singer’s death.

By contrast, many Americans (45%) believe that the debate in Washington over health care reform is getting too little coverage; about the same percentage (44%) say the news media has given the health care debate the right amount of attention while 6% say health care has received too much coverage. About as many Republicans (42%) as Democrats (41%) say the health care debate has gotten too little coverage.

A sizable minority (40%) also says that news organizations have not devoted enough coverage to reports about a CIA program to kill al Qaeda leaders that was hidden from Congress. Three-in-ten say news organizations devoted the right amount of coverage to this story while 19% say it got too much coverage. More than twice as many Republicans (28%) as Democrats (11%) say reports on the CIA program received too much coverage.

Slim majorities say that the press devoted the right amount of attention to confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (55%) and to reports about the U.S. economy (51%). Still, three-in-ten (30%) say that the economy received too little coverage last week. In other news, half (50%) say that the bombing of two hotels in Indonesia received the right amount of coverage, 32% say the story was undercovered, while 7% say it received too much attention from the press.

Economy and Health Care Capture Most Attention

The state of the U.S. economy and the health care debate in Washington shared the position of American’s top story last week. One-in-five named either the economy (21%) or health care (21%) as the news they followed more closely than any other. These two stories also received comparable levels of new coverage according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism: 13% of total news was devoted to the economy and 11% to the debate on reforming health care.

The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor attracted less public interest than either health care or the economy, but was the biggest story of the week in terms of news coverage (22% of the newshole). One-in-five say they followed news about Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate very closely and 14% followed this news more closely than any other. Interest in news about Barack Obama’s nominee for the high court was down somewhat from the week he made his nomination in late May (29% followed very closely then).

The public paid modest attention to news about a now cancelled CIA program to kill the leaders of Al Qaeda. The program, which was not disclosed to members of Congress until last week, was followed very closely by just 12% of the public and only 3% said this was their top story. The suicide bombings of two hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia also failed to attract significant public interesting from the U.S. audience. Overall, 13% of Americans followed this story very closely and just 2% were following the bombings most closely.

In the current survey, 17% reported following news about Michael Jackson very closely, down from 30% the weekend following his death on June 25. Among the public overall, 17% cited Jackson news as their most closely followed story, a significant decline from recent weeks. However, among African-Americans Jackson remained the biggest story of the week, with 42% saying it was their most closely followed story of the week.

These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s coverage. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis. In the most recent week, data relating to news coverage were collected from July 13-19, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected July 17-20, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults.

About the News Interest Index

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Monday through Sunday) PEJ compiles this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey collects data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.

Cite this publication: “Health Care: Important, Interesting, But Hard to Follow.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (July 22, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/22/health-care-important-interesting-but-hard-to-follow/, accessed on July 23, 2014.