August 26, 2009

Health Care Still the Summer’s Dominant Story

Many Hearing News About Swine Flu Vaccine

Summary of Findings

Despite the emergence of several major international stories – including an election in war-ravaged Afghanistan and the release of the so-called Lockerbie bomber – the public continued to be focused on domestic news, particularly the ongoing debate over health care reform.

Fully 45% say they followed health care developments more closely than any other story last week. That’s about the same level as the previous week (46% most closely) and twice the percentage that say they followed reports about the condition of the economy most closely (21%).

Using a slightly different measure, half say they very closely followed news about the economy (50%) or the health care debate (49%), according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted August 21-24 among 1,003 adults for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Several significant events overseas attracted far less attention.

Nearly a quarter (23%) say they very closely followed news about Scotland’s release of a terminally-ill Libyan imprisoned for his role in the bombing of a flight that exploded over Lockerbie in 1988; 6% say this was the story they followed most closely. Another quarter say they very closely followed news about the current situation and events in Iraq; 4% say this was the story they followed most closely. A smaller share (14%) say they followed the presidential election in Afghanistan very closely; 3% say this was the story they followed most closely.

A separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that the health care debate received far more coverage than any other major story. During the week of August 17-23, the debate took up 28% of the newshole, down slightly from 32% the previous week.

The economy and news out of Afghanistan – including a critical election conducted in the midst of the long-running war there – each accounted for 10% of coverage. Developments in Afghanistan generated the highest amount of coverage for events in that nation since PEJ began its News Coverage Index in January 2007.

The other foreign stories received less coverage. The release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, took up 4% of the newshole analyzed. News out of Iraq accounted for 3%.

Just over one-in-ten (11%) say they followed news about the Central Intelligence Agency hiring contractors to assassinate al Qaeda leaders. That was the story followed most closely by 1%. It also took up about 1% of the newshole measured by PEJ.

Public Takes Note of Swine Flu Vaccine

With continuing reports about the potential impact of swine flu this fall, a wide majority of the public say they have heard about the availability of a vaccine in time for flu season. Fully 86% say they have heard either a lot (42%) or a little (44%) about this; just 13% say they have heard nothing at all. Not surprisingly, those who have been following the debate over health care reform very closely are much more likely than those who have not to say they’ve heard a lot about swine flu vaccine (55% to 30%). In addition, women (47%) are more likely than men (36%) to say they’ve heard a lot about the story.

About seven-in-ten (69%) say they have heard at least a little about NFL quarterback Brett Favre returning to play for the Minnesota Vikings. Men (43%) and those living in the Midwest (46%) were among the most likely to say they have heard a lot about the football star ending his brief retirement.

A very different type of story registered about equally with the public: two-thirds (66%) say they have heard about protesters bringing guns to town hall meetings about health care; 33% say they’ve heard a lot about this. As with awareness of the swine flu vaccine, those who have been following the debate about health care very closely are much more likely to have heard a lot about these protesters (49%) than those who haven’t been following the health care debate closely (17%).

In other news, relatively few heard about claims by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that senior Bush administration officials pressured him to raise the national threat level shortly before the 2004 election. Fewer than two-in-ten (18%) heard a lot about this, 32% heard a little. Democrats were more than twice as likely as Republicans to say they heard a lot about this (23% vs. 10%).

Public Split on Country’s Economic Track

As the public continues to follow economic news closely, there is no consensus on whether the government is on the right track or the wrong track in the way it is handling economic problems facing the nation. For the second month in a row, about as many say the government is on the right track (44%) as say it is on the wrong track (43%); 13% say they do not know. While opinion is little changed since July, it remains down from the spring when majorities or pluralities said the government was on the right track.

As might be expected, partisan differences on this question are steep. About three-quarters of Republicans (77%) say the government is on the wrong track in the way it is handling economic problems facing the nation; just 14% say it is on the right track. Democrats take the opposite view: 73% say right track, 16% wrong track. Among independents, somewhat more say the government is on the wrong track (48%) than say it is on the right track (40%) in addressing the nation’s economic problems.

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 August 17-23, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 21-24, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 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 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.