Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Health Care Reform Closely Followed, Much Discussed

Summary of Findings

Public interest in health care reform shows no signs of slackening, with news about the debate continuing to top the public’s news agenda.

Fully 46% name health care as the story they followed more closely than any other last week – double the percentage who named the week’s second most closely followed story (economy, 23%). Moreover, health care is far and away the story people say they have been talking about most with friends: 55% say this, compared with 20% who name the economy.

The latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted August 14-17 among 1,003 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds that as news coverage of the health care debate reached a new high, claims that reform legislation would create “death panels” registered widely with the public. Fully 86% say they have heard either a lot (41%) or a little (45%) about so-called death panels – “government organizations that will make decisions about who will and will not receive health services when they are critically ill.”

Among those who have heard about death panels, 50% say the claim is not true, but a sizable minority (30%) believes that health care legislation will create such organizations (20% say they do not know). There are stark partisan differences in opinions about this issue, as well as substantial differences across news audiences.

Nearly half of Republicans (47%) say it is true that proposed health care legislation will create death panels; 30% say this is not true. By contrast, just 20% of Democrats say the claims about death panels are true while 64% say they are false. Among independents, 28% say it is true that health care legislation will create death panels; 51% say it is not true.

Regular viewers of the Fox News Channel are far more likely than viewers of other cable news channels to say claims of death panels are true. Among those who say they regularly get their news from Fox News, 45% say claims of death panels are true, while 30% say they are not true. By contrast, majorities among regular viewers of rival cable news channels MSNBC and CNN and nightly network news say they think it is false that health care legislation will create death panels; fewer than 30% in each group say they think such claims are true.

Most of those who regularly get news from the newspaper or the internet (53% of each) also do not believe that health care legislation will create death panels. Among those who regularly get news from radio, 48% say proposed health care legislation does not create death panels, while 37% say it does.

Fewer See Press as Fair to Obama

While a plurality of Americans (43%) say press coverage of Barack Obama has been fair, that figure has declined by 10 points since early June and is down from 64% in January. The proportion saying that coverage of Obama is too critical has risen since early June – from 16% to 23% currently.

Democrats, in particular, increasingly see news coverage of Obama as too critical. Since June, the percentage of Democrats who express this view has nearly doubled, from 22% to 40%. Over the same period, there has been a substantial decline in the proportion of Democrats who say coverage of Obama is fair – from 69% to 46%.

As in June, a majority of Republicans (52%) think the press has not been critical enough of Obama; nearly a third (31%) say it has been fair, and there has been a modest increase in the proportion of Republicans who see the press as too critical (from 4% to 13%). Among independents, 48% say the press has been fair, 31% not critical enough, and 15% too critical.

Fox News viewers are about twice as likely as those who regularly watch MSNBC, CNN or the broadcast network news to say the press has not been critical enough of the president. Nearly half of Fox News viewers (46%) say press coverage has not been critical enough; just 19% of MSNBC viewers and 21% of CNN viewers say this.

Top News Stories

Americans continue to be very interested in news about health care reform and the economy, and far less interested in overseas news. About four-in-ten followed the economy (41%) and health care reform (39%) very closely. By contrast, just 19% tracked news about the situation in Iraq very closely. Far fewer followed President Obama’s trip to Mexico or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Africa (9% each), and just 7% followed news about mudslides and flooding in Taiwan caused by a typhoon.

Health care reform is, far and away, the story Americans say they are following most closely. It also is the story the story getting the most media attention; according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 32% of last week’s coverage was devoted to the health care debate, the highest percentage this year. Economic coverage was a distant second, filling just 12% of the newshole.

Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats or independents to say they are following the health care debate very closely; 45% of Republicans say they are tracking the debate very closely; this compares with 38% among both Democrats and independents. But the partisan differences are more pronounced when it comes to economic news, with 52% of Republicans following it very closely, compared with 40% of independents and just 35% of Democrats.

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 10-16, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 14-17, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 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

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