March 10, 2010

Health Care Debate Back Atop Public’s News Agenda

Post-Summit, More See Reform Bill Passing

Summary of Findings

As Americans continue to track the debate over health care reform closely, a growing minority – now 39% – says they think health care legislation will pass this year. Just before the Feb. 25 bipartisan summit at the White House to discuss the stymied legislation, 27% said they thought a bill would pass in 2010.

In contrast, the latest News Interest Index survey, conducted March 5-8 among 1,017 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, shows little change in perceptions of the tone of economic news. Two-thirds (66%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy; 30% say they are hearing mostly bad news. These numbers have fluctuated only slightly in recent months.

On health care, more than half (52%) still say they do not think a bill will pass this year, but that is down 10 points from just before the televised meeting of lawmakers from both parties and President Obama. Last week, Obama kept the focus on health care, pushing Congress to act quickly on Democrats’ top legislative priority.

Three-in-ten Americans say they followed the debate over health care reform more closely than any other major story last week. The debate was also the most reported story of the week, making up 18% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). More than two-in-ten (22%) say they followed news about the earthquake in Chile most closely, while that story accounted for 10% of the newshole.

Attentive Public Divided Over Legislation’s Chances

Americans who say they followed the health care debate very closely last week are evenly divided about the legislation’s prospects: 45% think a bill will pass this year; 46% think one will not. Just before the summit, 31% of those following the debate very closely thought a bill would pass this year, while 58% thought it would not. Among those following less closely, 34% say they think legislation will pass this year, up from 25% two weeks ago (Feb. 19-22).

Public assessments of the prospects for health care legislation shifted dramatically in January following the special election in Massachusetts for the U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Ted Kennedy. Just before the Jan. 19 vote, 57% said they thought health care legislation would be enacted this year. Immediately after Republican Scott Brown’s win, that number fell to just 27%.

But since the Feb. 25 summit – and in the midst of a White House push for action – an increasing percentage of Americans says they think legislation will pass this year. More Democrats now say they think legislation will pass (49%), than won’t (40%). Just before the summit, 35% thought a bill would pass this year; 54% thought one would not. Among Republicans, 27% now say they think legislation will pass, compared with 14% just before the White House meeting. More than two thirds (68%) still say legislation will not pass. Among independents, 38% say they think legislation will pass this year, up from 26% just before the summit meeting.

News about Job Situation Still Seen as Mostly Bad

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, which is little changed since early February (61%) or early January (65%). Meanwhile, the number that says they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy now stands at 30%. It had been 35% at the start of February and 29% in early January. Just 4% say they are hearing mostly good news about the economy, essentially unchanged from earlier in the year.

Among partisans, 71% of Democrats say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy, compared with 61% of Republicans. Close to two-thirds of independents (65%) share this view. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they are hearing mostly bad news (36% vs. 24%). About three-in-ten independents (31%) agree.

When asked about specific elements of the economy, Americans are most likely to say they are hearing bad news about the employment picture. The federal government announced March 5 that the unemployment rate was 9.7% in February, unchanged from January. Currently, 59% say they are hearing mostly bad news about the jobs situation, about the same as the 61% that said this in January.

Just under half (45%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about real estate values, while 42% say they are hearing mixed news about this. Just 8% say they are hearing mostly good news about real estate values. The numbers are little changed from when the question was last asked in January.

About a third (34%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about prices for food and consumer goods, while half say they have been hearing mixed news about this; 9% say they have been hearing mostly good news about prices. In January, 45% said they were hearing mixed news about prices. Currently, 59% say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the financial markets, up from 47% in January. The percent hearing mostly bad news on this declined slightly from 32% in January to 26%; 11% say the news on financial markets has been mostly good, down from 16% in January.

Economy, Earthquake Also Top Stories

Four-in-ten Americans say they followed news about the economy very closely last week; 13% say they followed economic news more closely than any other major story. According to PEJ, reporting on the economy – not including specific reports on the budget problems facing state and local governments – accounted for 11% of the newshole.

About three-in-ten (31%) say they followed news about widespread local and state budget problems very closely; 7% say these were the stories they followed most closely. Coverage of the budget difficulties and their impact accounted of 2% of reporting measured by PEJ, though this news likely received more coverage from local sources not included in the analysis.

More than a quarter (27%) say they followed news about the earthquake in Chile very closely; 22% say this was the story they followed most closely. News about the earthquake took up 10% of the newshole. Despite its strength, the earthquake in Chile caused much less loss of life than the temblor that struck Haiti in early January. Just after that earthquake, 60% said they were following news about it and its aftermath very closely.

A quarter say they followed news about the 2010 congressional elections very closely, although just 4% say this was the story they followed most closely. These stories account for 5% of coverage. Developments in Iraq – including the at-times violent run-up to Sunday’s elections – were closely followed by 26%. This was the most closely followed story for 7%. Iraq news accounted for 2% of the newshole.

Many Heard About Children Directing Planes from NY Air Traffic Control Booth

With audiotape available that was widely played on television, radio and the Internet, about four-in-ten Americans (41%) say they heard a lot about reports that the children of an air traffic controller were allowed to give radio instructions to pilots at New York’s Kennedy Airport in February. Another 30% say they heard a little abou
t this, while 28% say they heard nothing at all.

About a third (35%) say they heard a lot about Congress voting to extend unemployment benefits last week after Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, ended a several-day effort to block the legislation. Close to four-in-ten (38%) heard a little about this and 27% heard nothing at all. Democrats were just as likely as Republicans to say they had heard a lot about this (33%), while 39% of independents say they heard a lot about the fight over the unemployment extension.

Three-in-ten say they heard a lot about the arrest of a convicted sex offender for the murder of Chelsea King, a California teenager; 42% heard a little about this and 28% heard nothing at all. An identical percentage (30%) heard a lot about the California man who was killed by police at the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C., after shooting at two Pentagon police officers; 40% heard a little about this and 29% heard nothing at all.

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 March 1-7, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 5-8, from a nationally representative sample of 1,017 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.