December 16, 2009

Public Closely Tracking Health Care Debate

Most Still Say Reform Issues Hard to Understand

Summary of Findings

Americans followed the health care debate more closely than any other news story last week as Senate Democrats struggled to find a compromise that would allow them to move legislation through their chamber despite strong Republican opposition.

About three-in-ten (31%) say the health care debate was the story they followed most closely, while 19% say they followed reports about the U.S. economy more closely than any other story. More than four-in-ten (42% each) say they followed news about these topics very closely, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest weekly News Interest Index, conducted Dec. 11-14 among 1,024 adults.

The percentage of the public that thinks that Congress will pass health care legislation within the next year stands at 56%, effectively matching the 57% recorded in mid-October just after the Senate Finance Committee approved its version of the measure. The current level is not up significantly from 52% the previous week, but the number has been trending higher since early November, when it was 47%. Close to four-in-ten (38%) say they do not think health care legislation will pass, a level not much changed in recent weeks. As they have in recent weeks, a greater percentage of Democrats (64%) than Republicans (48%) or independents (55%) says they expect legislation to pass.

The economy and the health care debate also were the week’s top stories in terms of coverage. According to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, stories about the economic crisis made up 16% of the newshole, while stories about the health care debate made up 14%.

Debate Remains Hard to Understand

Despite consistently high interest and the large percentage of Americans who say the issue affects them personally, the public continues to find the health care debate difficult to grasp. About seven-in-ten (69%) say health care reform is hard to understand, not much different from the 66% that said the same in early October. In the current survey, 29% say the issue is easy to understand, compared with 33% in the Oct. 2-5 survey.

Three-quarters of Republicans and 73% of independents say the debate is hard to understand, compared with 60% of Democrats.

More than nine-in-ten (93%) say the issue is important, while 6% say it is not. The answers on this question have changed little since it was first asked in mid-July. At that point, 95% said it was important and 4% said it was not.

Eight-in-ten say the issue affects them personally, up slightly from the 74% that said the same in October, but almost the same as the 78% that agreed in mid-July. Two-in-ten (19%) say it does not affect them personally, down slightly from 24% in October.

Seven-in-ten say the issue is interesting, while 27% say it is boring. Those figures have changed little since the question was first asked in mid-July.

The Week’s Top Stories

After the health care debate and the economy, the public continued to closely follow news about the war in Afghanistan. More than a third (35%) say they followed news about Afghanistan very closely; 12% say this was the news they followed most closely. According to PEJ, the media allocated 5% of newshole to Afghanistan, a significant drop from one week earlier as Obama announced his new war strategy. That week, the war took up 27% of the newshole.

Two-in-ten say they very closely followed the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama in Oslo, while 9% say this was the story they followed most closely. Obama’s trip and speech at the award ceremony received 4% of the coverage as measured by PEJ. Democrats were much more likely than Republicans or independents to have followed this story closely. About three-in-ten Democrats (31%) say they followed this story very closely, compared with 9% of Republicans and 16% of independents.

A smaller percentage (17%) says they followed the climate change conference in Copenhagen very closely, while 6% say this was the story they followed most closely. Stories about global climate change – including the conference, the controversy over hacked e-mails between climate scientists and actions by the Environmental Protection Agency on greenhouse gases – made up 10% of the newshole. About 3% of that was specifically tied to the international summit in Copenhagen.

About two-in-ten (21%) say they very closely followed reports about the arrests in Pakistan of five Muslim American men with suspected ties to terrorists; 5% say this was their most closely followed story of the week. The story line made up 3% of news 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 December 7-13, 2009, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected December 11-14, 2009, from a nationally representative sample of 1,024 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.