November 5, 2009

Swine Flu Interest Outpaces Coverage

Summary of Findings

For the second week in a row, Americans followed news about the swine flu and its vaccine more closely than any other news story – with public interest outpacing the amount of national media coverage devoted to the story.

About three-in-ten (29%) name reports about the fast-spreading flu and its vaccine as the story they followed more closely than any other last week, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted October 30-November 2 among 1,001 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Somewhat fewer mention news about health care reform (22%) or the economy (17%) as their top story.

A separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) finds that the national news media devoted 5% of the newshole to swine flu, much less than the coverage given to the health care debate (16%), Afghanistan (13%) or the economy (12%).

In addition, the public’s impression of economic news remains mixed at best, with very few saying they have been hearing mostly good news about the economy. About six-in-ten (62%) say they have been hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, while half as many (31%) say they have been hearing mostly bad news about the economy. Very few (5%) report hearing mostly good economic news. These views have changed little in recent months.

Job News Still Mostly Bad

When asked about specific aspects of the economy – including the job situation, real estate values, the financial markets and consumer prices – the public sees little good news on any front. Americans are particularly dour when it comes to evaluating news about employment.

Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) say they have been hearing mostly bad news about the job situation; 27% say they have heard a mix of good and bad news and just 3% say they’ve been hearing mostly good news about jobs. Impressions of the job situation are somewhat more glum than they were in August, when 61% said they had been hearing mostly bad news. There also are significant partisan differences in these views with Republicans (73%) and independents (72%) more likely to offer negative impressions than Democrats (59%).

On the whole, impressions of news about real estate, consumer prices and financial markets are less negative and more mixed than those of employment news. Still, few report hearing outright good news about any area of the economy. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they’ve been hearing mostly bad news about real estate values, while 37% say they’ve been hearing a mix of good and bad news.

About as many call news about consumer prices mostly bad (39%) as say it is a mix of good and bad (42%). Impressions of the financial markets are the least negative: 48% say that news has been a mix of good and bad, while a third (33%) say it has been mostly bad news. For all three areas of the economy, no more than 13% characterize the news they have been hearing as mostly good.

Prospects for Health Care Reform

By a 47%-39% margin, more Americans say they expect a health care reform bill to pass over the next year than say they do not. While still a plurality opinion, the percentage expecting passage of a health care bill has dropped since mid-October, just after the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation with the support of one Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine. Since mid-October, opinion on this question has declined 10 points, with Republicans, Democrats and independents all less likely to say they think a health care reform bill will pass over the next year.

But there are sharp partisan differences. In the current survey, a 61%-majority of Democrats say they expect a bill to pass over the next year, compared with far fewer independents (45%) and Republicans (36%). In contrast to Democrats, about half (51%) of Republicans say they do not think a reform bill will pass in the next year.

The Week’s Top Stories

News about health care reform ran a close second to news about swine flu in terms of public interest. About a third (32%) followed health care reform news very closely, while 22% say this was their top story of the week. According to PEJ, health care reform topped the news media’s agenda, accounting for 16% of the newshole.

Reports about the condition of the U.S. economy were followed very closely by 34% of the public; 17% say they followed economic news more closely than any other story. The media devoted 12% of the newshole to stories about the economy.

The public continued to devote modest attention to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. About a quarter (24%) say they followed Afghanistan news very closely, while 10% name this their top story. Despite relatively limited interest, Afghanistan was the media’s second biggest story of the week, filling 13% of the newshole.

Few paid close attention to the World Series or news about political instability in Pakistan. Some 16% say they paid very close attention to each of these stories; 8% name the World Series as their top story, 2% news about Pakistan.

Not surprisingly, interest in the baseball championship series between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies attracted the greatest interest in the northeast. About a quarter (26%) in the northeast say they followed the World Series very closely last week, compared with no more than 15% in any other region.

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 October 26-November 1, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected October 30-November 2, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,001 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 4 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.