Summary of Findings
Americans tracked the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti more closely than any other major news last week, but also kept a close watch on two intertwined stories: the fate of health care legislation in Washington and the outcome of last week’s special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts.
Nearly half (47%) say they followed news about Haiti more closely than any other story. Almost two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about the debate over health care reform most closely, while 14% say they most closely followed news about Republican Scott Brown’s win in the race for the late Democrat Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat.
The public’s take on the chances that health care legislation will be enacted this year shifted dramatically after Brown’s Jan. 19 victory, which will end the Democrats’ effective control of 60 Senate seats and their ability to stop Republican filibusters. About two-thirds (67%) now say they do not think a health care reform bill will be passed into law this year, while 27% say they think it will, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey conducted Jan. 22-25 among 1,010 adults nationwide by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. This is a reversal from the previous week’s News Interest Index survey when 57% said they thought legislation would pass this year, while 33% said it would not.
The Haiti earthquake and the Massachusetts election also received the most news coverage last week, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The earthquake aftermath accounted for 27% of the newshole, while Brown’s win – and its potential impact on President Obama’s agenda – made up 21% of coverage. Specific coverage of the health care debate made up just 5% of the newshole.
While Democrats focused overwhelmingly on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake (66% say it was the story they followed most closely), Republicans were more likely to divide their attention among the week’s top stories. More than a third (35%) say they followed news about the earthquake more closely than any other story, but close to a quarter (23%) say they followed the Massachusetts election most closely. Just 6% of Democrats say they followed the election for Kennedy’s seat more closely than any other story. Among independents, 42% say they followed Haiti news most closely, and 13% say they followed the Massachusetts vote most closely.
Attention to the Massachusetts special election was not confined to the Northeast. Roughly equal numbers say they followed the election very closely in the Northeast (39%) and the West (40%), little different from the percentages of those who say they followed it very closely in the Midwest (35%) and the South (33%). Men and women were equally interested in the vote (37% vs. 35% very closely). And, in another sign that the public saw the election as significant, almost two-thirds (64%) say the media gave the heavily-reported story about the right amount of coverage.
Prospects for Health Care Legislation Dim
The percentage of Americans who say they think health care legislation will pass this year (27%) is at its lowest point since the question was first asked in early October 2009. The week of Oct. 9-12, the public was divided: 45% thought legislation would pass within the next year; 46% thought it would not.
While two-thirds (67%) now say they do not think legislation will be enacted this year, that view is even greater among those who say they followed the special election in Massachusetts very closely. Among that group, 78% say they do not think legislation will pass this year; 17% think it will. Among those following the health care debate very closely, a comparable 73% now say they do not think legislation will pass; 23% say they think it will. That is a reversal from just one week earlier, when 63% of those following the debate very closely said they thought legislation would pass and 33% thought it would not.
The expectation that health care legislation will pass in the next year is down sharply among all partisan groups. Currently just 17% of Republicans say legislation will pass, down from 47% one week earlier. Among independents, the percentage dropped to 22% from 59% and among Democrats it dropped from 64% to 42%. Nevertheless, Democrats remain most likely to say legislation will be enacted.
Among the 79% who know that the Republican won the special election, seven-in-ten (72%) say they do not think legislation will pass, while 22% think it will. Among the 21% who do not know that the GOP candidate won what had been Ted Kennedy’s seat, about half (49%) say they do not think legislation will be enacted this year.
Too Much Coverage of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien
About seven-in-ten Americans (69%) say the press devoted too much coverage to Conan O’Brien’s departure from The Tonight Show and Jay Leno’s return to that show. O’Brien hosted the show for the last time on Friday, Jan. 22. About one-in-five (21%) say the media devoted the right amount of coverage to this story.
Far fewer people say any other story received too much coverage last week. About seven-in-ten (71%) say the earthquake and relief efforts in Haiti have gotten the right amount of coverage; 19% say they have gotten too much coverage. Almost two-thirds (64%) say the Massachusetts election got the right amount of coverage, while 16% say it got too much. About as many (15%) say the race received too little coverage.
A plurality (49%) says the Supreme Court’s decision overturning campaign finance laws on corporations and unions paying for ads about political candidates was under-covered. Just 8% say this decision, which was announced on Thursday, Jan. 21, got too much media attention. Close to four-in-ten (38%) say the media gave too little coverage to the country’s economic conditions. A matching percentage (38%) says the same about the debate over health care reform.
As Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address, more than half of Americans (55%) say their opinion of him has not changed in recent weeks, but one third (33%) say their opinion of Obama has grown less favorable recently. Just 8% say their opinion of the president has improved. This is the most negative balance of opinion since Obama became president.
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 Jan. 18-24, 2010, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected Jan. 22-25, 2010, from a nationally representative sample of 1,010 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.