Summary of Findings
News about the economy and the debate over health care reform continue to dominate public attention. A growing proportion of Americans say they are hearing mostly good news about the economy, while the percentage saying the news is mostly bad has fallen since July. On health care, protests at contentious town hall meetings with lawmakers are drawing widespread attention. And a majority of those who have heard about the meetings say that the way people have been protesting against current proposals is appropriate (61%).
About three-in-ten (29%) say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy, down from 41% in July, while the number hearing mostly good news is up from 3% to 11%. The percentage hearing a mix of good and bad is largely unchanged (59% now; 56% in July).
The latest News Interest Index survey, conducted August 7-10 among 1,004 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, also finds that the public is hearing better news about financial markets than in June. Today, 20% say they are hearing mostly good news about those markets, compared with 9% in June. The number hearing mostly bad news dropped 12 points to 31%.
Despite strong interest in news about the economy, the public again followed news about the health care debate more closely than any other major story last week (36%). About two-in-ten (21%) say they followed reports about the economy most closely, making these the week’s top stories.
Nearly eight-in-ten say they heard a lot (49%) or a little (29%) about the at-times angry community meetings. By a 58% to 43% margin, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say they heard a lot about the protests over health care at town hall meetings.
Of those who had heard at least a little about the meetings, 61% say they think the way people have been protesting is appropriate; 34% say they see the protests as inappropriate. Not surprisingly, there is a large partisan divide: 80% of Republicans see the protests as appropriate, compared with 40% of Democrats and 64% of independents. A majority of Democrats (56%) say the way people have been protesting is inappropriate, compared with 15% of Republicans and 30% of independents.
With Congress wrapping up work for its August recess, much of the coverage of the health care debate shifted to the town hall meetings last week. Health care maintained its spot atop the media’s agenda for the third straight week, though coverage was down slightly, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The story accounted for 16% of the newshole, down from 19% the previous week and 25% the week before that. Meanwhile, four-in-ten Americans say they followed health care news very closely last week, down from the 47% that said the same the week before.
A separate July survey by the Pew Research Center found that the public’s impression of the health care legislation under discussion by lawmakers was more negative than positive. By a slim margin, more Americans said they “generally oppose” (44%) the health care proposals being discussed in Congress than “generally favor” them (38%). The survey showed a large partisan divide with Democrats far more likely to look favorably on health care reform than Republicans. Two of the most frequently mentioned concerns of opponents were the cost of the proposals and the extent of government involvement in health care. Variations on those concerns are among those frequently raised at the town hall meetings.
Meanwhile, interest groups engaged in the health care debate appear to have followed through on plans to air more commercials on the issue. In the current survey, about six-in-ten people (62%) say they have seen or heard ads about the debate in the past few weeks. That’s up from 50% in mid-July.
About two-in-ten (22%) say the ads they have seen or heard had a mostly negative message about health care reform; another 22% say the ads were a mix of positive and negative. A smaller percentage (16%) say they have seen or heard ads with a mostly positive message; 2% say they do not remember the tone of the ads they had seen. A total of 35% say they have not seen a health care ad, down from 47% that said the same in mid-July.
Public Sees Modest Improvement in Economic News
Though a majority of Americans say they have been hearing mostly bad news about the nation’s job situation, they report mixed impressions of other elements of the economy. In addition, the percentage hearing mostly bad news about jobs and financial markets has lessened over the past two months, with slightly more now saying they’ve heard mixed or good news.
About six-in-ten (61%) say they’ve been hearing mostly bad news about the job situation, 32% say they’ve heard mixed news and just 6% say they have heard good news. While still negative, impressions of the job situation have become less dour since mid-June. In the last two months – and following the recent announcement of a largely stable unemployment rate – the percent who say they’ve been hearing mostly bad news has declined 10 points, while percentages saying they’ve heard mixed or good news have each ticked up 5 points.
On balance, the public has a more positive impression of news about consumer prices, financial markets, and real estate values. In the case of consumer prices and financial markets, pluralities say they have been hearing a mix of good and bad news about the subject. On real estate values, 41% say the news has been mixed, while 40% say it has been mostly bad. Still, the percentages who say they’ve heard mostly bad news about each element of the economy continue to outpace the percentages who report hearing mostly good news by wide margins.
On three out of the four economic items tested, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to report having heard mostly bad news. For example, 69% of Republicans say they have been hearing mostly bad news about the job situation compared with 49% of Democrats, a 20-point gap in opinion.
Top News Stories
While more people name health care as their top story of the week, news about the condition of the U.S. economy continues to be near the top of the public’s news agenda: 42% say they followed economic news very closely and 21% say they followed reports about the economy more closely than any other story. Media coverage of economic news was also robust: 15% of the newshole was devoted to reports on the economy, a close second to the health care debate (16%), according to PEJ.
In other news, Bill Clinton’s trip to North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists was followed very closely by 28% of the public with 14% calling it their top story of the week. Democrats (44% very closely) were more likely than Republicans (21% very closely) to say they were following the story. Coverage of Clinton’s diplomatic trip accounted for 11% of the newshole.
More than two-in-ten (22%) say they followed the Senate confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court very closely, though just 7% named it their top story. In 2005, 28% said they followed news about the confirmation of John Roberts as chief justice of the court very closely. As with news about Bill Clinton, more Democrats closely followed news about Sotomayor than Republicans.
Almost one-in-four (24%) followed the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan very clos
ely and 13% say they followed a shooting at a fitness club in Pennsylvania very closely; 6% name Afghanistan their top story of the week, 4% name the Pennsylvania shooting.
Health Care Town Halls Register Widely
Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say they have heard at least a little about protests over health care at town hall meetings held by members of Congress; about half (49%) say they have heard a lot about this. Republicans (58%) are more likely than Democrats (43%) to say they have heard a lot about the health care town halls.
About six-in-ten heard at least a little about a woman who killed eight people while driving drunk the wrong way on a New York highway. News that Paula Abdul will not return to the popular television program “American Idol” registered with 69% of the public, though more heard a lot about the New York car crash (32%) than heard a lot about Abdul’s departure (24%).
Fewer say they heard about service outages at popular websites Twitter and Facebook: 15% heard a lot about this, 35% a little. Those younger than 40 were slightly more likely than those 65 and older to have heard about the website outages.
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 August 3-9, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 7-10, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 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 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 3.5 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.