August 6, 2009

Many Fault Media Coverage of Health Care Debate

Partisan Divide Over Coverage of

Summary of Findings

As the fight in Washington over health care reform continues to dominate public attention and media coverage, most Americans are critical of the way news organizations are explaining key elements of the debate.

News about proposed health care legislation was the most closely followed story of last week, just as it had been the prior week. More than a third (36%) say they followed news about the debate more closely than any other major story. And when people are asked what news story they are talking about with friends, the most frequent response is health care (also 36%), far outpacing mentions of other stories, including the economy.

The latest News Interest Index survey, conducted July 31-August 3 among 1,013 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, finds that the public gives news organizations low marks for their coverage of health care. More than seven-in-ten say the media has done either a poor (40%) or only fair (32%) job explaining details of the various proposals. Just 21% offer a positive rating of this coverage: 4% excellent and 17% good.

A similar percentage say news organizations have done either a poor (37%) or only fair (33%) job explaining the effect the “proposals would have on people like yourself.” About a quarter say they have done an excellent (7%) or good (16%) job on this. News organizations receive only slightly better ratings for how they have explained the political debate over health care. Still, 34% rate the job they have done as only fair and 28% say it is poor, while about three-in-ten say they have done an excellent (6%) or good job (25%) in covering this aspect of the story.

Republicans and independents are somewhat more critical than Democrats of coverage of the health care debate. For example, 46% of Republicans and 43% of independents say news organizations have done a poor job explaining the effects of the proposals on individuals, compared with 24% of Democrats. About half of Republicans (52%) say news organizations have done a poor job explaining details of the proposals, compared with 44% of independents and 27% of Democrats.

For the second week in a row, the media gave more coverage to the health care debate than any other story. An analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) found that the issue accounted for 19% of the newshole examined – down slightly from 25% the week before – with significant coverage focused on the politics of the debate as Congress approached its August recess without a vote in either chamber.

Plurality Say Too Much Coverage of Obama Citizenship

Most Americans say they have heard at least a little about allegations that President Obama was not actually born in the United States and is therefore not eligible to be president. Eight-in-ten say they have heard either a lot (31%) or a little (49%) about the people making these claims, while 19% say they have heard nothing at all. Nearly nine-in-ten Republicans (89%) say they have heard at least a little about the allegations, compared with 84% of independents and 70% of Democrats.

Of those who have heard at least a little about the issue, 41% say news organizations have given too much attention to claims that Obama was not born in the U.S.; 28% say they have gotten too little attention and 24% say they have gotten the right amount of attention.

A majority of Democrats (58%) who have heard at least a little about the claims that Obama was not born in the United States say they have gotten too much attention from news organizations. Opinion is divided among independents, with 39% saying the allegations have gotten too much attention, 30% too little, and 23% the right amount.

Republicans are more inclined to say that the allegations have received too little attention. Nearly four-in-ten Republicans (39%) express this view, while 27% say they have received the right amount of attention and 26% say they have gotten too much attention.

Continued Strong Interest in Health Care

Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they are following the health care debate very closely, which is comparable to the 49% that said the same in September 1993 when then-President Clinton addressed Congress about health care. Two weeks ago, 44% said they were following health care developments very closely.

A similar percentage (46%) say they followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely last week, virtually the same level of interest as in the previous two weeks. For 15%, this was the story they followed most closely. According to PEJ, news about the economy was the second most covered story, accounting for 14% of the newshole.

A quarter say they very closely followed reports about the controversy surrounding the arrest of African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his Cambridge home in mid-July. The story received widespread attention last week when Gates and the white officer who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, joined President Obama for a beer and a private discussion at the White House. For 11%, this was the story they followed most closely. Developments in the story accounted for 8% of the newshole.

The proportion saying they very closely followed developments involving the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson stands at 17%; down from the 30% that said they were following the story very closely immediately after Jackson’s sudden death on June 25. Still, developments accounted for 4% of the newshole last week – making PEJ’s top five stories – as authorities continued to investigate the role Jackson’s doctors may have played in his death; 15% say this was the story they followed most closely.

Close to two-in-ten (18%) say they very closely followed reports about the popularity of the government’s “Cash-for-Clunkers” car trade-in program, which appeared to run through most of its original $1 billion allocation last week; 5% say they followed this story more closely than any other. The story made up 2% of the newshole.

Meanwhile, 18% say they followed reports about the Iranian government’s crackdown on opposition protesters very closely, though just 3% say they followed this story more closely than any other. In mid-June, about three-in-ten said they were following the Iranian crackdown on election protestors very closely.

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 27-August 2, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected July 31-August 3, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,013 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: “Many Fault Media Coverage of Health Care Debate.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 6, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/08/06/many-fault-media-coverage-of-health-care-debate/, accessed on July 23, 2014.