February 3, 2010

Public Focus Still on Haiti; Media Shifts to State of Union

Most Say Passage of Health Care Legislation Unlikely

Summary of Findings

In a week when the media focused heavily on Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address and the state of the economy, Americans continued to track news about the earthquake in Haiti more closely than any other major news story.

Four-in-ten say they followed news about the aftermath of the earthquake and relief efforts “most closely” last week, far more than said the same about the debate over health care reform (18%) or reports about the condition of the U.S. economy (15%). Fewer that one-in-ten (8%) say they followed news about the State of the Union speech more closely than any other story, according to the latest News Interest Index survey, conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 among 1,020 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

The media, on the other hand, gave the most coverage to the president’s speech (19%) and news about the economic crisis (18%), according to the separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Reporting on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake made up 11% of the newshole examined.

And, two weeks after Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election for Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat, 60% of Americans say they do not think health care legislation will pass this year. That’s down slightly from 67% just after the special election, but still a stark reversal from immediately before the Jan. 19 vote. At that point, 57% said they thought legislation would pass this year, while 33% said they thought it would not. About one-in-ten (11%) now say they do not know, up from 5% one week earlier.

Among those following the health care debate very closely, 56% say they think legislation will not pass this year, while 35% think it will. That represents a significant change from one week earlier, when 73% of that group said legislation was not likely to pass and 23% thought it would. Among those following the debate less closely, views are largely unchanged from one week earlier: 63% say legislation won’t pass and 26% say that it will. Just before the Massachusetts election, 54% of this group said health care legislation would pass this year, while 34% said it would not.

The views of those who watched Obama’s speech – which included a pitch to lawmakers to complete action on the legislation – are largely the same as the views of those following the debate very closely: 55% say legislation will not pass this year; 36% think it will. Among those who did not watch the speech, 64% say legislation will not be enacted this year, while 24% say that it will.

More than four-in-ten (45%) say they watched Obama’s speech, while a narrow majority (55%) says they did not. More than half of Democrats (55%) say they watched the speech, compared with 38% of Republicans and 41% of independents.

Crisis in Haiti Continues to Unfold

Though four-in-ten Americans say they are following the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti more closely than any other major news story, the percentage tracking this news very closely has dropped since the week the quake hit. Currently, 45% say they are following this story very closely, down from 60% that first week and 50% the following week.

More than four-in-ten (45%) say they followed news about the condition of the economy very closely last week. The economic crisis accounted for 18% of the newshole. About four-in-ten (39%) say they followed the debate over health care reform very closely, a level little changed in recent weeks. While the health care debate was a significant part of assessments of Obama’s speech and his first year in office, stories that focused primarily on this debate made up just 3% of the coverage analyzed by PEJ.

A third of Americans (33%) say they followed news about Obama’s State of the Union speech very closely, a level comparable to the 37% that said they followed his first speech to Congress on Feb. 24, 2009 very closely. In early 2008, just 18% said they followed George W. Bush’s last State of the Union address very closely. This year, 8% say they followed the speech more closely than any other major story; reporting on the speech made up 19% of the newshole.

About two-in-ten (21%) say they followed news about the widespread recall of Toyota cars and trucks – and a temporary halt to sales of certain models – because of problems with sudden acceleration. Just 5% say this is the story they followed most closely. Toyota’s troubles made up 4% of the newshole.

Similarly, 23% say they tracked developments in the war in Iraq very closely last week. News about the latest bombings in Iraq accounted for just 1% of the newshole; 4% say this was the news they followed most closely last week.

Views About Obama Mostly Stable, But Somewhat More Positive

While more than half of Americans continue to say their opinion of Obama has not changed recently, a slightly higher number than one week earlier says their opinion has grown more favorable.

In polling conducted shortly after the State of the Union address, 18% say their views have become more positive, 22% say they have become more negative and 57% say their views have not changed in recent weeks. One week earlier— following Republican Scott Brown’s win in the special Senate election in Massachusetts – the balance of opinion was more negative. In polling conducted Jan. 22-25, 8% said their views of Obama had grown more positive, while a third (33%) said they had become more negative.

On balance, women’s views have become more favorable in recent weeks. In early December 2009, 10% of women said their opinion of Obama had recently become more positive. The proportion was virtually unchanged in late January (9%), but 21% now say their opinion has become more favorable in recent weeks. In late January, 31% of women said they had come to think more negatively of the president in recent weeks. That fell to 19% in the most recent survey.

More than half of Republicans (54%) said in late January that their views of Obama had become less favorable in recent weeks. That number fell 15 points to 39% in the current survey.

Those who say they are following the debate over health care reform very closely also are more likely to say their views have become more positive: 26% say their views have become more favorable, while 30% say they have become less favorable. One week earlier, 11% said their views had become more favorable, while 42% said they had become less so.

Most Hear About Edwards Family Saga

About three-quarters of Americans say they heard at least a little about John and Elizabeth Edwards separating after the former senator acknowledged fathering a child with his mistress. About a quarter (26%) say they heard a lot about this, while 50% say they heard a little. Women are more likely than men to have heard a lot about this (29% vs. 22%).

About a quarter (24%) say they heard a lot about the unveiling of Apple’s new iPad tablet device, while 44% say they heard a little about this. Significantly more had heard about Apple’s introduction of its iPhone in mid-2007 (46% a lot, 37% a little). Though young people often lag older Americans in their news awareness, 27% of those under 40 heard a lot about t
his latest Apple product, compared with 23% of those age 40-64 and 20% of those 65 and older.

Fewer than two-in-ten (17%) say they heard a lot about the death of “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger, while 46% say they heard a little about this. More than a third (36%) say they heard nothing at all.

Just 9% say they heard a lot about the arrest of four young conservative activists in New Orleans who apparently tried to gain access to the phones in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s local offices; 27% heard a little about this, but 63% say they heard nothing at all. One of those arrested – James O’Keefe – gained prominence last fall after releasing undercover video that showed employees of Acorn, a community organizing group, appearing to give advice to a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute. Three-in-ten (31%) had heard a lot about that story in a survey conducted Sept. 18-21, while 25% had heard a little.

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 Jan. 25-31, 2010, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected Jan. 29-Feb. 1, 2010, from a nationally representative sample of 1,020 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.

Cite this publication: “Public Focus Still on Haiti; Media Shifts to State of Union.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 3, 2010) http://www.people-press.org/2010/02/03/public-focus-still-on-haiti-media-shifts-to-state-of-union/, accessed on July 22, 2014.