November 19, 2009

Health Care Reform News Tops Public Interest

Public Option Registers Widely

Summary of Findings

The debate over health care reform was the news story followed most closely by the American public last week, though the media devoted more coverage to the investigation into the shooting rampage at the Fort Hood Army base.

About a quarter (27%) of the public say they followed news about health care reform more closely than any other news story last week. In addition, the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted November 13-16 among 1,004 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that half of Americans (50%) say they have heard a lot about the debate over whether or not health care reform will include a government-run public option. The public has heard somewhat less about other debates surrounding health care reform.

Coverage of the health care debate filled 11% of the newshole last week, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). The Fort Hood shootings received more coverage (20%), while 21% of the public followed the investigation into the killings more closely than any other news in the week following the Nov. 5 rampage.

Half Hearing a lot about Public Option

When it comes to specific elements of health care reform, the debate over the public option has been more visible than any other. Half say they have heard a lot about whether there would be a government health insurance plan – a so-called public option. About three-in-ten (31%) have heard a little about this, while 20% have heard nothing at all.

Slightly fewer have heard a lot about the debate over how much health care reform would cost (45%) and a proposed requirement that all Americans get coverage or pay penalties (44%). Some 35% have heard a lot about whether or not abortions would be covered by reform, 33% have heard a little about this and another 33% have heard nothing at all about debate over abortion coverage.

About a third (34%) have heard a lot about how Medicare would be affected by reform, including 56% of those 65 and older. About the same percentages say they have heard a lot about potential rules governing coverage of pre-existing conditions (32%) and whether or not illegal immigrants could get coverage (30%).

Relatively few say they have heard a lot about how reform proposals would be paid for (29%). This contrasts with the larger percentage of the public who say they have heard a lot about how much health care reform would cost (45%).

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they have heard a lot about several elements of the health care debate – most notably, the cost of reform, how reform would be paid for, potential penalties for not having coverage, and coverage of illegal immigrants. Republicans are 18 points more likely than Democrats to say they have heard a lot about how much health care reform would cost (55% Rep, 37% Dem). There is an identical 18-point party gap when it comes to hearing a lot about a proposed requirement that all Americans get coverage or pay penalties (56% Rep, 38% Dem). Similarly, Republicans are 13 points more likely to say they have heard a lot about whether or not illegal immigrants could get coverage (38% Rep, 25% Dem) and 10 points more likely than Democrats to have heard a lot about how the government would pay for reform (35% Rep, 25% Dem).

Prospects for Health Care Reform

There has been no significant shift in the public’s expectations for passage of health care legislation. A 49%-plurality say that, from what they have seen and heard, they expect a health care reform bill to pass over the next year; 37% say they do not expect a bill to pass. Opinion on this question has been flat through the month of November, after showing some movement in mid-to-late October.

Also unchanged are consistent partisan differences in these expectations. As has been the case for several weeks, Democrats (60%) are much more likely than Republicans (35%) to say they think health care legislation will pass. Opinion among independents falls roughly between Republicans and Democrats with 48% of independents saying they think a bill will pass and 40% saying they do not expect health care reform to pass over the next year.

Notably, those who are following the debate over health care reform very or somewhat closely (64% of the public) are more likely than those following less closely (36% of the public) to say they expect passage of health care legislation. By a 54%-36% margin, those following closely expect a bill to pass, while 11% say they don’t know whether a bill will pass or not. By comparison, those following the health care debate less closely are more divided: 41% think legislation will pass, 40% think it will not and 19% don’t know.

The Week’s Top Stories

The public continued to pay close attention to the shootings at Fort Hood – in the week following the deadly shooting rampage at the Texas Army post. After topping public interest in the previous week’s News Interest Index, 35% say they followed news about the investigation into the shootings very closely last week, while 21% say they followed the story more closely than any other. Interest was just slightly lower than public interest in the health care reform debate; and the media continued to cover the story closely, devoting 20% of the national newshole to the tragedy.

About a third (34%) followed news about swine flu and its vaccine very closely, while 19% say swine flu was their top story of the week. News coverage was comparatively modest, filling just 2% of the newshole, according to PEJ.

Nearly four-in-ten (38%) followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely. Though, in a week with other leading stories, economic news ranked fourth on the most closely followed list with 15% saying economic news was their top story. The media devoted 11% of national coverage to news about the economy.

And, as President Obama continues to deliberate a war strategy for Afghanistan, 29% say they followed the debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan very closely; 5% named Afghanistan their top story of the week. News about Afghanistan made up 7% of the newshole.

Relatively few followed news about President Obama’s trip to Asia last week. Just 8% say they followed news about the trip very closely and only 2% called it their top story of the week. Much of the survey was completed while Obama was in Asia, but before he landed in China on Nov. 15. News coverage for last week was similarly scant, filling 2% of the newshole.

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 9-15, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected November 13-16, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 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: “Health Care Reform News Tops Public Interest.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 19, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/11/19/health-care-reform-news-tops-public-interest/, accessed on July 22, 2014.