September 16, 2009

Health Care Debate Seen as “Rude and Disrespectful”

Debate Continues to Dominate Public Interest

Summary of Findings

With public and media attention focused on President Obama’s Sept. 9 health care address to a joint session of Congress, Americans overwhelmingly cited the health care debate as their top story of the week. And when asked to evaluate the tone of the health care debate, a majority says it has been rude and disrespectful.

Fully 45% say the debate over health care reform was the story they followed most closely last week, far more than cite reports about swine flu (16%) or the condition of the U.S. economy (15%). Health care reform has been the dominant news story since late July, but it now has a 29-point advantage over the second most closely followed story, the widest margin measured by Pew Research Center surveys since the debate intensified early this summer. Health care reform also generated much more coverage than any other story last week.

Most Americans say the tone of the debate has been negative. According to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted September 11-14 among 1,003 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 53% say the tone of the debate over health care has been generally rude and disrespectful; 31% say it has been generally polite and respectful and 16% do not offer an opinion.

Among those who say the debate has been rude and disrespectful, most believe that opponents of the health care legislation under consideration are to blame. By a 59% to 17% margin, more blame opponents than supporters of the legislation; 17% volunteer that both groups are to blame.

There is disagreement between partisan groups when it comes to the tone of the debate, and – among those who say it has been rude – over who bears the blame for the negative tone. While a clear majority (65%) of Democrats say the debate has been rude and disrespectful, Republicans are more divided: 44% say it has been polite and respectful, while 40% say it has been rude and disrespectful. By a 53% to 31% margin, independents say the debate has been more rude than polite.

Among Democrats who see the debate as rude, 85% say that opponents of health care legislation are to blame for the tone. By contrast, 18% of Republicans put the blame on opponents, while many more (45%) say supporters are to blame. Another 27% say both supporters and opponents are to blame. Among independents, 49% blame opponents, 20% blame supporters of the legislation and 24% blame both.

In addition, there are only slight differences in opinion among those who say they watched Obama’s speech and those who did not. For both groups, the prevailing opinion is that the health care debate has been rude and disrespectful, and for those who say the debate has been rude, that opponents of the legislation, rather than supporters, are mostly to blame. As might be expected, those who watched Obama’s speech are also following the debate more closely than those who did not watch the address.

Wilson’s Shout Resonates

More than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) say they heard a lot or a little about Rep. Joe Wilson shouting at President Obama during his health care speech. That nearly equals the proportion of Americans who say they heard about President Obama’s back-to-school speech to students (85%).

Fully 55% say they heard a lot about Wilson shouting “You lie” during Obama’s speech. A similar percentage (57%) say they heard a lot about Obama’s education speech. In both cases, Democrats were slightly more likely to have heard a lot about these news events than Republicans or independents. Close to two-thirds of Democrats (64%) say they heard a lot about Wilson’s shout during Obama’s health care speech compared with 56% of Republicans and 49% of independents. Similarly, about two-thirds of Democrats (66%) say they heard a lot about Obama’s speech to school students, compared with 57% of Republicans and 51% of independents.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who say they are following the health care debate very closely also say they heard about Wilson’s outburst, compared with 41% of those following the debate less closely.

Far fewer (22%) say they heard a lot about Van Jones, a White House “green jobs” adviser, resigning his post following controversy over his past comments and affiliations. More than a third (35%) says they heard a little about Jones’ resignation, while 41% say they heard nothing at all. Republicans (35%) were much more likely to say they heard a lot about this than Democrats (15%) or independents (23%).

The Week’s Other News

After the debate over health care reform, news about swine flu and the economy vied for public attention, with other stories registering less widely.

Fully 45% say they followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely; 15% name it as their most closely followed story of the week.

According to a separate analysis of coverage by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the health care debate took up about a third (32%) of the week’s newshole. Coverage of the economy was relatively modest, filling 9% of the newshole.

Reports about swine flu and the availability of a vaccine were followed very closely by a somewhat smaller percentage of the public (30%). However, just as many call swine flu their top story of the week (16%) as cited the economy (15%). In general, swine flu interest outpaced coverage: just 2% of the newshole was devoted to the story last week.

The Sept. 11 anniversary and war related stories garnered somewhat lower levels of public interest. News reports on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks were followed very closely by 31% of the public, with 6% calling news about the anniversary their top story. The war in Afghanistan was followed very closely by 25% of the public, 5% say it was the story they followed most closely. Similarly, 21% say they followed stories about the war in Iraq very closely, while just 2% call it their top story.

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 September 7-13, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 11-14, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 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 landline 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.