November 11, 2009

Fort Hood Shootings Top Interest, Coverage

Unchanged Expectations About Health Care Reform Passage

Summary of Findings

The November 5 shootings at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas – which resulted in the death of 13 Americans – was the public’s top news story last week. News coverage of the tragedy was also high, with the national media devoting more attention to the story than to any other.

Three-in-ten Americans followed news about the shootings at Fort Hood more closely than any other news story last week. In addition, the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted November 6-9 among 1,001 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that 44% say they paid very close attention to the shootings.

That level of very close interest is on par with the level of attention paid to the shootings at the Virginia Tech campus in 2007: at the time, 45% followed news about the Virginia Tech massacre very closely. By comparison, more than two-thirds (68%) followed news about the Columbine High School shootings very closely in late April 1999.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), news coverage of the Fort Hood rampage accounted for 15% of the overall weekly newshole. In the three days immediately following the shootings, coverage accounted for more than a third (34%) of the newshole monitored by PEJ. Other leading stories – tracked over the full course of the week – such as health care reform and the off-year elections filled a somewhat smaller percentage of the newshole (8% and 13%, respectively).

Prospects for Health Care Reform

By a 48%-40% margin, more Americans continue to say they think a health care reform bill will pass over the next year than say they do not think that will happen. Opinion on this question is virtually identical to that measured a week earlier. House passage of health care legislation late Saturday, Nov. 7, had little effect on public attitudes: opinions measured in the two days after passage were not significantly different than those measured in the two days leading up to the vote.

The partisan divide over the prospects for health care reform also remains. A broad majority of Democrats (62%) say they expect a bill to pass over the next year; about a quarter (27%) do not think reform will happen. Republicans and independents are much more mixed in their views: 42% of Republicans expect a bill to pass, half (50%) do not. Among independents, 43% think health care reform will happen over the next year, while a comparable percentage (46%) do not think a bill will pass.

Media Overstating Swine Flu Dangers?

Fewer than half (47%) say that, in general, news reports are presenting the danger of the swine flu about right. Nearly as many (43%) say that news reports are overstating the danger of the flu; few say the dangers of swine flu have been understated (7%). These attitudes are unchanged from mid-October, despite sustained media coverage and public interest in recent weeks.

Republicans take a much more critical view of swine flu coverage than do Democrats or independents. Fully 56% of Republicans say news reports are overstating the danger of swine flu, while about a third (36%) say they are getting it about right. Opinion among Democrats is the reverse. More than half (56%) say reports are presenting it about right, while 32% say reports are overstating the danger. Independents are divided: 46% say news reports overstate the dangers of swine flu and 45% say they present the dangers about right. Fewer than 10% of each political group say news reports are understating swine flu’s dangers.

The Week’s Top Stories

Following the shootings at Fort Hood, the debate over health care reform was the public’s second biggest story of the week with a quarter saying they followed health care news more closely than any other story. About a third (35%) paid very close attention to news about health care reform. According to PEJ, the media devoted 8% of national coverage to health care news.

News about swine flu was the top story for 15% of the public; 32% say they followed reports about the flu and its vaccine very closely. Interest was significantly higher among women (39% very closely) than men (24% very closely). Coverage of swine flu news filled just 2% of the national newshole.

Reports about the rising unemployment rate were followed very closely by 34% of the public with 8% naming unemployment news as their top story of the week. Those with lower levels of income and education were somewhat more likely to follow unemployment news closely than those with higher incomes and education levels. News coverage was modest, filling 3% of the newshole.

Overall, the public paid somewhat less attention to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and state and local elections. For both stories, about two-in-ten say they followed them very closely, while just 4% named Afghanistan or the off-year elections as their top story. Interest was modest, despite the fact that the national media devoted significant coverage to both stories: election news filled 13% of the newshole, while news about Afghanistan comprised 8% of all national coverage.

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 November 2-8, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected November 6-9, 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.