March 3, 2010

Public Focuses on Health Care and Olympics

Modest Rise in Expectation That Health Care Reform Will Pass

Summary of Findings

Americans say the two news stories they followed most closely last week were the reinvigorated debate over health care reform in Washington and the second week of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

In interviews shortly after the Feb. 25 bipartisan summit on health care legislation, a quarter of the public (25%) says they followed the health care debate more closely than any other story last week. A comparable number (24%) say they followed the Winter Olympics most closely, according to the latest News Interest Index survey, conducted Feb. 26-March 1 among 1,008 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

About a third (34%) now say they think health care legislation will pass this year, up from 27% one week earlier. Still, that is far below the 57% recorded Jan. 15-18, just before the special election in Massachusetts for what had been Ted Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Immediately after Republican Scott Brown won the Jan. 19 vote, the percentage saying they thought a health care bill would pass this year plummeted to about a quarter (27% Jan. 22-25).

The health care debate dominated news coverage last week, making up 24% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Among the other top stories were the economic crisis (11% of coverage), Toyota’s continuing problems (10%) and the Olympics (7%).

Will Health Care Reform Pass?

Following the White House health care summit that included President Obama and lawmakers from both parties, about a third of Americans (34%) say they think legislation will pass this year, up from 27% in the week before the meeting. Currently, 54% say they think a bill will not pass, while 62% held that view before the summit.

The shift can be seen across party lines. Democrats are now divided in their assessments of whether legislation will pass this year (46% say it will, 43% say it won’t). One week earlier, 35% said they thought a bill would pass, while more than half (54%) thought it would not. Currently, 26% of Republicans think legislation will pass, up from 14% one week earlier. The percent that says a measure won’t pass decreased from 80% to 68%. Independents show little change: currently, 32% say a bill will pass this year, compared with 26% the week of Feb. 19-22.

About a third (34%) of the public says they heard a lot about the summit, which was broadcast on C-SPAN and elsewhere; 36% say they heard a little about it and another 30% say they heard nothing at all. Among those who heard a lot about the meeting, 41% say they think legislation will pass this year, while 52% say they do not think that will happen. Among those unaware of the summit, 26% say they think a bill will pass and 56% think it will not.

Few Heard A Lot About Senate Jobs Bill

While a third of Americans say they heard a lot about the health care summit, just two-in-ten say they heard a lot about the U.S. Senate passing legislation last week to encourage employers to hire new workers. More than four-in-ten (43%) heard a little about this, while 37% say they heard nothing at all. There was virtually no difference among partisans in the numbers who had heard a lot about the legislation that passed the Senate with the support of several Republicans, including Scott Brown.

Just 13% say they heard a lot about General Motor’s announcement that it will end the Hummer line of vehicles. Close to half (47%) heard a little about this and 39% say they heard nothing at all.

In foreign news, the ongoing financial crisis in Greece attracted little attention. Close to six-in-ten (57%) say they heard nothing at all about the debt trouble facing the Greek government; 15% say they heard a lot about this, while 28% say they heard a little.

News of the Week

While the health care debate was one of two most closely followed stories last week, by another measure interest in the story has dropped a bit. Since mid-November – until the past two weeks – the percentage saying they were following the health care debate very closely has hovered around 40%. Currently, 29% say they are following the health care debate very closely, similar to the 33% that said this one week earlier. The week of Jan. 29-Feb. 1, 39% said they were following this story very closely; 41% said the same one week before that.

Almost a quarter (23%) say they followed news about the Winter Olympics very closely, down from 30% during the first full week of the Vancouver games. Meanwhile, 24% say they followed the Olympics more closely than any other major story. The games made up 7% of the total coverage measured by PEJ.

About three-in-ten (31%) say they followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely, down from 38% one week earlier. At the same time, 13% followed economic news more closely than any other major story, while news about the economy made up 11% of the newshole.

About two-in-ten (19%) very closely followed news about the death of a killer-whale trainer at Sea World in Orlando, Fla.: 10% say this was the story they followed most closely last week. Almost a quarter of women (23%) say they followed this story very closely, compared with 15% of men. The killing of a veteran trainer by a 12,000 pound whale accounted for 3% of news coverage.

Two-in-ten say they followed developments in the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan very closely, while 6% say this was the story they followed most closely. News out of Afghanistan accounted for 5% of coverage.

And 16% say they followed Congressional hearings about problems with Toyota vehicles very closely; 5% say this was the story they followed most closely last week. Stories about Toyota’s problems made up 10% of the newshole, with the bulk of the coverage tied to the hearings in Washington.

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 Feb. 22-28, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected Feb. 26-March 1, from a nationally representative sample of 1,008 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 Focuses on Health Care and Olympics.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 3, 2010) http://www.people-press.org/2010/03/03/public-focuses-on-health-care-and-olympics/, accessed on July 23, 2014.