March 23, 2010

Health Care Finale: Heavy Coverage, Huge Interest

Many Still Critical of Press Handling of Health Care

Summary of Findings

Americans closely tracked the final stages of the long-running debate over health care reform legislation last week as the story dominated media coverage. More than half (53%) of the public says the debate was the story they followed most closely, while the story was the focus of 37% of news coverage. Half of Americans report talking about the health care reform news with friends.

As Sunday night’s climactic House vote approached, the percentage of Americans who said health care legislation would pass grew by the day as Democrats struggled to round up the final votes and Republicans sought to derail the bill. By Sunday afternoon, 62% said they thought the legislation would pass, up from 49% on Friday and just 43% in the comparable survey the previous weekend. Yet even as late as Sunday, roughly a third of Americans said they did not think a health care reform bill would pass this year.

Americans remain critical of the media’s handling of the health care debate, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press among 1,016 adults March 19-22. Three-quarters (75%) say that news organizations have done only a fair or a poor job explaining the details of the proposals, and nearly as many (71%) give negative ratings to the press for explaining the effects that health care proposals would likely have on “people like yourself.” There is slightly less criticism of press coverage of the political debate itself, though even here, 58% offer only fair or poor ratings, while 38% say the press has done an excellent or good job. These assessments are little changed from August 2009.

A separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the health care debate accounted for 37% of the newshole during the week of March 15-21 as Democrats sought to secure the votes needed for passage of the bill in the House. No other story came close. The economy, which received the second highest amount of coverage, accounted for just 8% of the newshole.

A Debate That Grabbed the Public Interest

The health care debate has been among the more closely followed stories since the middle of last August, when many lawmakers held at-times raucous town hall meetings with constituents about the legislative proposals. About half (49%) said they were following these stories very closely the week of Aug. 21-24, 2009. For much of the second half of the year, the health care debate ranked as either the top or second most closely followed story of each week.

Interest fluctuated in early 2010, in part as other stories grabbed public attention, but it had grown in recent weeks as Obama and Democrats pressed for final action. The 51% following the story very closely last week rivals some of the top stories since Barack Obama took office in early 2009. Close to six-in-ten (57%) said they followed the nation’s economic crisis very closely in mid-January 2009, while 52% said they followed Obama’s inauguration very closely that same week. This year, six-in-ten said they followed the earthquake in Haiti very closely shortly after it hit on Jan. 12.

Democrats Increasingly Predicted Bill Would Pass

From mid-November until Republican Scott Brown won the Jan. 19 special election in Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy in U.S. Senate, majorities had said they thought health care legislation would pass in the next year. Immediately after the election, the percentage saying that dropped from 57% to 27%. It had been inching up since mid-February, but took a big jump last week – from 43% to 55% – as House Democrats appeared to have a majority of votes in reach to pass the Senate bill and a package of fixes.

By this past weekend, 75% of Democrats said they thought the legislation would pass, up from 61% the previous week and 49% the week before that. Republicans were divided this past weekend: 43% thought legislation would pass, 46% thought it would not. But that represented a sharp change from one week earlier when 27% thought legislation would pass this year and 70% thought it would not. Among independents, 53% thought the bill would pass, while 37% thought it would not. One week earlier, 38% thought it would pass and 50% thought it would not.

Talking About Health Care

When asked what recent news story they have been talking about with friends, half mention the health care reform debate. Just 4% mention the economy or jobs, while similar small percentages mention stories such as local news (3%), crime news (3%), recent earthquakes (3%), Sandra Bullock’s marital troubles (2%), or Tiger Woods’ announcement that he would return to golf tournament play. There were no significant differences among demographic or partisan groups, although the more educated – those with a college degree or more – were more likely to say they had discussed health care reform with friends (65%) than those with some college (47%) or a high school education or less (39%).

Public Critical of Media’s Health Care Coverage

Substantial majorities of Americans say news organizations have done only a fair or poor job in explaining details of the health care proposals, the political debate over the issue and the effect health care proposals would have on people like themselves. These assessments are little changed from last summer.

Three-in-four say the media’s explanations of proposal details has been only fair (34%) or poor (41%), virtually unchanged from early August 2009. Republicans are notably more critical than are independents or Democrats: 51% of Republicans rate the press’ performance in this aspect as poor, a view shared by 44% of independents and just 25% of Democrats.

About seven-in-ten offer negative assessments of the media’s coverage of how the health care reform proposals would affect people like themselves. Four-in-ten rate press coverage as poor and 31% say “only fair,” little changed from last summer. Republicans (49%) and independents (42%) are more likely than Democrats (26%) to say news organizations did a poor job on this front.

Americans are slightly less critical in their assessments of the media’s work when it comes to explaining the political debate. While about as many say the press did a fair or poor job on this as did so last summer (58% now, 62% then), somewhat more people say the media has done an excellent or good job (38%) than said so in August (31%). As with the other media assessments, Democrats are less harsh. Just 15% of Democrats say the press has done a poor job in describing the political debate — and as many say it has done an excellent job. Republicans (33% poor, 12% excellent) and independents (27% poor, 7% excellent) are more critical.

Notably, there are only minimal differences in assessments of coverage on these three issues between those who followed health care very closely and those who followed the topic less closely.

Many Heard A Lot about Tiger Woods

Despite the high level of attention focused on the health care reform debate, more people say they have heard a lot about Tiger Woods in the news recently than say so about several political figures, including those heavi
ly engaged in the health care battle. About six-in-ten people (62%) – including 63% of women and 60% of men – say they have heard a lot about Tiger Woods, who announced he is returning to professional golf next month.

Four-in-ten (40%) had heard a lot about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, about twice as many as had heard a lot about her Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid (21%). Republicans (48%) were somewhat more likely than Democrats or independents (39% each) to say they had heard a lot about Pelosi. The partisan gap was much wider for Reid: 30% of Republicans say they had heard a lot about him in the news recently; just 10% of Democrats say the same. A quarter of independents say they have heard a lot about Reid.

Americans have heard less about Republicans engaged in the health care debate, with just 13% saying they had heard a lot about House Minority Leader John Boehner and 8% saying they had heard a lot about Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority Leader.

Many Closely Tracking Economic News

Though the health care debate dominated news interest and coverage last week, four-in-ten Americans (41%) say they followed news about the economy very closely and 13% say they followed this news more closely than any other major story. Economic news made up 8% of the coverage analyzed by PEJ.

Fewer than two-in-ten (17%) say they followed reports about problems with sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles; 7% say this was the story they followed most closely. Toyota’s continued troubles made up 4% of the newshole.

Just more than one-in-ten (12%) say they very closely followed news about drug-related violence in Mexico, while 5% say this was the story they followed most closely. These stories made up 2% of coverage.

Similar percentages closely tracked reports about tensions in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians: 15% followed these stories very closely, while 3% say these were the stories they followed most closely. Reporting on the dispute made up 4% of coverage.

Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) say they very closely followed reports about the Vatican’s handling of sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Just 1% say this was the story they followed most closely. These stories accounted for 1% of 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 March 15-21, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 19-22, from a nationally representative sample of 1,016 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.