March 31, 2010

Health Care Debate Tops Public Interest, Coverage

Most Americans Believe They Understand New Law's Impact on Them

Summary of Findings

The long-running debate over health care reform continued to dominate public attention and media coverage last week as the final skirmishes played out on Capitol Hill and President Obama set out to promote the newly-enacted law.

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they followed the health care debate more closely than any other major news story last week. Another 5% say they followed news about vandalism and threats directed at Democrats who voted for the legislation most closely, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press among 1,018 adults March 26-29.

The news media and the public were on the same page last week. Stories about the final steps in enacting the legislation and analysis of its expected impact accounted for 38% of the newshole, while reporting about the vandalism and threats made up another 7%. Together, they made up 45% of coverage last week, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

More than half of the public (55%) says they feel they understand at least somewhat well how the new health care reform law will affect them and their families. About two-in-ten (18%) say they feel they understand the impact very well, while 37% say they feel they understand how it will affect them somewhat well. More than four-in-ten (44%) are more uncertain: 21% say they feel they understand the personal impact “not too well,” while 23% say they do not understand this at all.

A large majority (81%) says they have gotten information about the new health care law from the news media, while just under half (46%) say they have gotten information from family and friends. Just 7% each say they have gotten information about the new law from their employer or their church or religious community.

About four-in-ten (39%) say they are surprised that the health care reform bill passed, while 58% say they are not surprised. During the weekend of the Sunday, March 21, House vote clearing the legislation, about a third of Americans (35%) – including almost half of Republicans – still said the bill would not pass this year; 55% thought it would.

Most Say They Have Some Understanding of Law’s Impact on Them

More than half of the public (55%) says they understand at least somewhat well how the new health care law will affect them and their families. That includes 18% who say they understand this very well and 37% who say they understand the impact somewhat well. Still, 44% say they understand how they will be affected either not too well (21%) or not at all (23%).

Close to two-thirds of Democrats (64%) say they understand how they and their families will be affected at least somewhat well, compared with 54% of independents and 47% of Republicans. Those with family income at $75,000 or more are also more likely to say they understand the likely impact (67% say very or somewhat well) than those in families with lower incomes (51% each for families earning between $30,000 and $74,999 and families earning less than $30,000).

Not surprisingly, those following the health care debate very closely are more likely than those following less closely to say they understand how they and their families will be affected. About seven-in-ten of those following very closely (69%) say they understand the impact at least somewhat well, compared with 42% of those following less closely.

Most people (81%) say they have gotten information about the new health care law from the news media. Close to half (46%) say they have gotten information from family and friends, while 54% say they have not. Republicans are somewhat more likely to say they have gotten information from family and friends (53%) than Democrats (39%); 48% of independents say this as well.

Only 7% each say they have gotten information from an employer or a religious organization. There are no significant partisan differences on these questions.

Health Care Debate Very Closely Followed

About half of the public (49%) says they followed the debate over health care reform very closely last week. That’s about the same as the 51% that said they were following it very closely one week earlier as the legislation headed to the climactic House vote. The public has shown high interest in the debate repeatedly since last summer, but the current numbers rival past peaks. During the week of Aug. 21-24, 2009, for example, 49% said they were very closely following the debate, which at that point included at-times angry town hall confrontations between lawmakers and constituents.

In the most recent week, 58% of Republicans say they followed the debate very closely, compared with 47% each of Democrats and independents. More than seven-in-ten Democrats (72%), 66% of Republicans and 63% of independents say this was the story they followed most closely.

Half of Republicans, meanwhile, say they are surprised that Congress passed a health care reform bill, compared with 36% each of Democrats and independents. About six-in-ten Democrats (62%) and independents (61%) say they are not surprised.

In recent weeks, Republicans had been least likely to say they thought a bill would pass this year. During the weekend leading up to the House vote, 46% of Republicans still thought the legislation would not pass, compared with just 19% of Democrats. Close to four-in-ten independents (37%) said at that time they did not think the package would pass.

The Week’s Other News

While the debate over health care dominated public interest last week, this was the first week in recent months in which the state of the national economy was not a specific choice in the survey. Fewer people say they are closely following the ups and downs in the stock market (3% most closely) than typically say they are tracking broader economic news. No other story grabbed a large share of the public’s attention.

About a quarter (26%) of the public says they very closely followed news about vandalism and threats directed at Democrats following the health care reform vote; 5% say this was the story they followed most closely. Democrats (33%) were more likely to have followed this story very closely than were Republicans (20%). A quarter of independents (25%) followed this story very closely. Reporting on this topic made up 7% of news coverage, according to the PEJ analysis.

One-in-five say they very closely followed news about tensions between Israel and the United States, and 4% say this is the story they followed most closely. Republicans (28% very closely) followed this story more closely than did independents (19%) or Democrats (15%). News coverage of this topic accounted for 3% of the newshole.

Fewer than one-in-five (17%) paid very close attention to reports about the Vatican’s handling of sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Still, that was more than twice as many as followed the story very closely one week earlier (8%); 4% said this was the story they followed most closely. News about this story accounted for 3% of coverage.

As the Dow Jones Industrial Average flirted with 11,000 points, few Americans were paying close attention. Just 13% say they very closely followed recent ups and downs in the stock market, while 3% say this is the story they followed most closely. Men (18%) were more likely than women (9%) to have followed the stock market very closely, and Republicans (20%) were more likely than independents (12%) or Democrats (11%) to have kept a very close eye on the market. Stories about the stock market made up less than 1% of coverage.

About one-in-ten (9%) Americans paid very close attention to Google’s decision to not use servers in mainland China as a way to avoid government censorship; 1% say this is the story they followed most closely. News about Google’s choice made up 2% of the newshole last week.

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 22-28, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 26-29, from a nationally representative sample of 1,018 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.