April 22, 2010

Health Care Still Top Story, But Many Track Volcano

Awareness of Tea Party Movement Increasing

Summary of Findings

Americans say they followed news about the new health care law more closely than any other major story last week, but many also kept a close watch on the economy and the ash-spewing volcano in Iceland that disrupted international air travel.

Though media coverage of the health care debate has dropped significantly since President Obama signed the legislation into law on March 23, Americans continue to say this is the story they are following most closely (33%), according to the latest News Interest Index Survey conducted April 16-19 among 1,008 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. This likely reflects the perceived importance of this issue to the general public. Last week, the story accounted for 4% of the newshole

About two-in-ten (21%) say they followed news about the volcano spreading ash over Europe more closely than any other story, while 18% say the economy was the story they followed most closely. According to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), news about the economic crisis made up 16% of the newshole, news about the volcano accounted for 7% and news about U.S. nuclear weapons policies and the nuclear summit in Washington accounted for another 7%.

A smaller percentage say they followed news about the anti-government protests on April 15, tax filing day, more closely than any other story (3%), while 16% say they followed these stories very closely. Still, awareness of the Tea Party movement, the driving force behind the protests, has increased over the past month.

Growing Awareness of the Tea Party Movement

Four-in-ten Americans now say they have heard a lot about the Tea Party movement; 37% say they have heard a little and 23% say they have heard nothing at all. In mid-March (March 11-21), 26% said they had heard a lot about the Tea Party protests that have taken place over the past year, 42% said they had had heard a little about this and 30% said they had heard nothing at all.

A plurality of those who heard at least a little about the Tea Party movement (41%) say news organizations have given it the right amount of coverage. About a quarter (24%) say the movement has gotten too much coverage and 29% say it has gotten too little. Close to half (46%) of those who heard at least a little about the Tea Party movement say the press has been fair in its coverage; 24% say coverage has been too tough and 17% say it has been too easy.

Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say the movement has gotten too much coverage (37% vs. 8%). About a quarter of independents (24%) say this as well. On the other hand, there is little partisan difference in the numbers saying the movement has gotten the right amount of coverage: 46% of Republicans, 42% of Democrats and 38% of independents.

Close to four-in-ten Republicans (38%) say the movement has gotten too little coverage, more than double the 16% of Democrats that say this. About a third of independents agree (32%).

Among those who followed news about the April 15 anti-government protests very closely, 46% say the Tea Party movement has gotten too little coverage; 31% say it has gotten the right amount and 18% say it has gotten too much coverage. Among those following last week’s protests less closely, 25% say the Tea Party movement has gotten too little coverage, 26% say too much and 43% say the right amount.

Partisans also have differing views on whether media coverage of the Tea Party movement has been too easy, too tough or fair. More than six-in-ten Democrats (62%) say coverage has been fair, compared with 40% of Republicans and 42% of independents. More than four-in-ten Republicans (42%) say coverage has been too tough, compared with just 6% of Democrats and 26% of independents. Just 7% of Republicans say coverage has been too easy, compared with 23% of Democrats and 20% of independents.

Of those who say they followed the April 15 Tax Day protests very closely, 41% say coverage of the Tea Party movement has been too tough, 34% say it has been fair and 16% say it has been too easy. Among those who followed the protests less closely, half say coverage of the movement has been fair, 20% say it has been too tough and 18% say it has been too easy.

One-Word Impressions of the Tea Party Movement

When Americans are asked what one word describes their impression of the Tea Party movement, the most frequently offered responses are “great” (34 mentions), “interesting” (also 34 mentions), and “patriotic” (31 references). Overall, however, more respondents offer negative terms than positive to describe the movement.

A plurality of the responses (44%) are negative, while about a third (32%) are positive. About a quarter (24%) are neutral.

Respondents offered a wider range of negative terms than positive, though none got more than 18 individual mentions. Among the most common were “ridiculous” (18 references), “misinformed” or “uninformed” (16), “radical” (15) and “stupid” (14). The numbers are actual mentions – not percentages – out of the 751 responses to this question.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are much more likely to offer positive descriptions (53%) than are Democrats (7%). About a third of independents (34%) also offer positive words. On the other hand, seven-in-ten Democrats (71%) provide negative words, compared with 20% of Republicans and 42% of independents.

More than six-in-ten (63%) of those who say press coverage of the Tea Party movement has been too tough offer positive words; 14% provide a negative response and 23% offer a neutral description. The results are flipped for those who see coverage as too easy: 64% offer a negative description, 21% neutral and 15% positive. Among those who say coverage has been fair, 52% provide a negative description, 28% a neutral one and 20% a positive one.

Many Still Focusing on Health Care Debate

Four-in-ten Americans say they very closely followed news about the new health care reform law last week; just as many say they followed news about the economy very closely. However, substantially more people say news about the health care law is the story they followed most closely: 33% say this about health care, while 18% say it about the economy.

Attentiveness to the health care law has diminished somewhat since its passage, but it remains high. The percentage of people that say they are following the health care reform debate or the new health care law very closely has dropped 11 points since March 19-22, just before the bill was signed into law. Meanwhile, coverage of the health care issue has plummeted in recent weeks.

Health care consumed almost 40% of the newshole in mid-to-late March, but coverage dropped off dramatically after the legislation became law: For the week that included the day Obama signed the bill (March 22-28), the health care debate itself accounted for 38% of coverage, according to PEJ. The following week, it accounted for 9% of coverage.

As the bill neared final passage and Obama’s signature, men were paying slightly more attention to the debate than were women (55% following very closely vs. 47%). Now they are about equally likely to be following the new law very closely (42% for men, 39% for women).

Republican interest in health care reform has changed little over the past month: 49% of Republicans said they were following the debate over health care reform very closely just prior to the bill being signed; 45% say the same now. Interest has fallen among Democrats (56% following very closely then, 39% now) and independents (52% then, 40% now).

Older Americans remain much more likely to say they are following the issue very closely than do those younger than 40. Similarly, those with more education continue to pay more attention than do those with less, though, interest has waned among college graduates and high school graduates. There has been little change among those with some college.

The Week’s Other News

In other news, about a quarter of Americans (27%) followed stories about volcanic ash from Iceland wafting over Europe and grounding airplanes; 21% say this is the story they followed most closely. Another quarter of Americans (26%) tracked stories about the safety of U.S. mines very closely, following the deadly explosion April 5 at a West Virginia coal mine. Fewer (9%) say this is the story they followed most closely.

The anti-government protests on April 15 and the nuclear summit in Washington, D.C. attracted less attention: 16% say they followed news about the protests very closely, while 14% say the same about the nuclear summit. Just 3% say the protest story is the one they followed most closely; 3% say the same about the nuclear summit.

Those who had heard a lot about the Tea Party movement are much more likely to say they followed stories about the protests very closely: 30% of those who had heard a lot about the Tea Party movement followed the protests very closely, compared with 7% of those who had heard a little or nothing at all about the movement.

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 April 12-18, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected April 16-19, from a nationally representative sample of 1,008 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. (For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.) 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, under the direction of Infogroup/ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). The sample is produced by ORC from data provided by Marketing Systems Group. Interviews are conducted in English. Data are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, region and population density to parameters from the March 2009 Census Bureau’s Current Population survey. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the current survey, conducted April 16-19, 2010:

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.