September 30, 2009

Media Less Influential in Views on Health Care, Economy Than on Other Issues

Health Care Debate Continues to Top News Interest

Summary of Findings

The first week of fall brought little change to the public’s news agenda with the debate over health care reform continuing to top public interest. However, the news media play much less of a role in shaping views of health care reform and the economy – where personal experiences are an important factor – than they do on environmental issues and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than four-in-ten (42%) name the health care debate as the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week, far more than mention reports about the condition of the U.S. economy (19%). Public interest in health care has been stable over recent weeks, consistently eclipsing interest in other news stories.

When asked what is most important in helping them to form opinions on health care, 41% cite what they have heard or read in the media as most important; only somewhat fewer cite personal experiences (31%), while another 25% say that talking with friends and family is most important. Similarly, nearly as many people say that personal experiences are most important in helping them form opinions about the economy (35%) as cite the media (41%), with 23% mentioning talking with friends and family.

By contrast, clear majorities say the media is most important in helping them form opinions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (61%) and environmental issues such as global climate change (57%), while far fewer cite personal experiences as being most important (15% for Iraq and Afghanistan, 19% for environmental issues). In each case, about one-in-five cite talking with family and friends as most important (22% Iraq and Afghanistan, 19% environment).

Older Americans Rely More on Media

Americans age 65 and older are generally more likely than other age groups to say what they see or read in the media is most important to their opinions. For example, 73% of older Americans say they rely most on the media to inform their opinions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By comparison, 64% of those ages 40-64 say the media is most important in helping them form opinions on the wars; and among those 18-39, even fewer (50%) say media is the most important factor in shaping their views of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A similar age pattern is seen across the other three items tested – health care, the economy and the environment.

There are only modest partisan differences in views of the factors that help shape opinions on these issues. However, a notable exception is opinion on environmental issues such as global climate change. While about two-thirds of Democrats (68%) cite media as most important in helping them form opinions on environmental issues, fewer independents (55%) and Republicans (50%) say this.

The Week’s Other News

More than four-in-ten (44%) paid very close attention to reports about the condition of the U.S. economy last week, while 19% named it their top story. While about as many paid very close attention to the economy as health care reform, far fewer named the economy as their most closely followed story (19% economy, 42% health care).

The debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan was followed very closely by 27% of the public with 10% calling it their top story of the week. News about recent terrorist plots in the United States received about the same amount of attention: 32% followed this story very closely and 9% said it was the story they followed more closely than any other.

The public paid relatively little attention to two major international events hosted by the U.S. last week. Some 15% paid very close attention to the United Nations meetings in New York, while 11% very closely followed the G-20 economic meetings in Pittsburgh. Just 2% and 3% named the UN meetings and the G-20 meetings their top story, respectively. Interest was low, despite robust news coverage. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the United Nations meetings were the top media story of the week, filling 10% of the news hole; and coverage of the G-20 cracked the top 10 accounting for 5% of the newshole.

Southeast Floods, Iran Nuclear Facility Register With Public

More than four-in-ten say they have heard a lot about news that Iran has built a covert nuclear facility (45%) and recent flooding in the Southeast (44%). Awareness of the Southeast floods was especially high in the affected region of the country, with 54% of those in the South hearing a lot about the story.

Fewer heard a lot about reports about a new AIDS vaccine (23%); 44% heard a little about this news, while 33% heard nothing at all.

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 21-27, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 25-28, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 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.