With passage in Congress, health care reform dominated the news last week more than any story had in a year.

Fully 45% of the week’s news coverage was devoted to the bill, its passage, the political fallout and what the legislation would do, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The last time a story received this much coverage in one week was in March of 2009, when outrage over the bonuses at insurance giant AIG put the economy at 53% of the newshole.

Nearly half of that health care coverage last week, 47%, focused on the political implications of the bill’s passage. A quarter of the health care coverage, 22%, focused on how the law would change health care. The ensuing threats to lawmakers and the coverage of the last minute lawmaking made up much of the rest. 

All other subjects in the news paled by comparison to coverage of health care last week. The second biggest story line involved the economy, filling 9% of the newshole (that is, time on television and radio, and space online and in print). Third was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, highlighted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, also at 3%.That was followed by the recent controversy involving the Catholic Church and questions about whether Pope Benedict XVI, at various points in his career, had failed to properly address the actions of pedophile priests. It occupied just over 3% of the newshole. The fifth biggest story of the week was Google’s withdrawal from mainland China, at about 3%.

The Passage of Health Care

The passage and signing of the health care reform legislation was the top story in each of the five media sectors studied in the NCI. But as with other Washington-driven stories, cable and radio talk shows seized on the story more than other sectors.

On cable channels CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, fully 68% of the news agenda during the week was taken up with discussion of the bill. On talk radio it was no different, with hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Ed Schultz devoting 53% of their air time to health care.

Over all, coverage of the bill among the various sectors added up to 45% of the week’s news coverage, a greater share even than the previous week, when attention the number was 37%, the highest it had ever been since the legislative debate began last spring.

With last’s week coverage, health care ranks among the most covered weekly stories since the Project began regularly tracking mainstream media coverage at the beginning of 2007. It would rank as the 18th biggest story in any week in the more than 150 weeks studied. Some of these include the Virginia Tech massacre (51% of the newshole for the week of April 15, 2007), the 2008 presidential campaign and the announcement of vice president (69% in the week of August 25, 2008) and the economic crisis/AIG bonuses (53% in the week of March 16, 2009). 

What was the political verdict reflected in the media last week on health care? Many among the mainstream press emphasized the bill’s passage and signing as a landmark victory for President Obama and his party. “Summoned to success by President Barack Obama,” wrote the AP’s David Espo in a March 22 lead story, “the Democratic-controlled Congress approved historic legislation Sunday night, extending health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and cracking down on insurance company abuses, a climactic chapter in the century-long quest for near universal coverage.”

Some of the coverage talked about what a risk the decision to tackle healthcare “amid a deep recession” had become for Obama. As the Washington Post put it on March 22, that choice had “potentially endanger[ed] his re-election prospects and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.” Victory seemed to change the equation and perhaps redeem his first year in office.

Media on right of the political spectrum last week sought to galvanize conservatives to continue to fight against the legislation and defeat the liberals in the midterm elections. The day after the vote, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said, “We need to defeat these [expletive]. We need to wipe them out. We need to chase them out of town. But we need to do more than that. We need to elect conservatives.” 

Media personalities on the left, some of whom were critical of the legislation earlier for not going far enough, last week hailed the vote. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow trumpeted the plan’s benefits: “tax credits for small businesses, drug help for seniors, coverage for pre-existing conditions.” She then quickly turned to attack Republicans, saying “All of those things I just mentioned, everything there, that whole list, Republicans now say they want to repeal.”

With the bill finally passing, last week was the first time that Americans got a final description of what health care reform would do. That coverage represented one quarter of all the reportage about the legislation last week. How was it described?

In examining the bill’s provisions, many stories broke down the ways in which it would affect various demographics. The lead story Washington Post March 22 featured a flow chart titled “How healthcare reform could affect you.” Its online version featured an interactive tool that “estimates what it could mean for your health coverage and taxes based on your income, family size and current insurance status.”

On CNN daytime, Ali Velshi spent several segments March 23 outlining the bill’s impact on a series of digitized avatars on the ‘Magic Wall’, including ‘Young Yvette,’ a recent college grad without a job or insurance, and ‘Self-Employed Mom and Pop’ who run a small business. Discussing the bill’s provision to allow young people up to 26 years old to be covered under their parents’ plans, CNN’s senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen said: “That’s a lot of people. I mean, this is a huge deal. Lots of people are looking at healthcare reform and saying ‘There’s nothing in it for me, I’m already insured’. Well, here’s something that would be in it for you if you have a kid who’s coming of age.”

That evening, Anderson Cooper looked at how three hypothetical families of varying incomes would fare under the new plan. “The government will help buy coverage for pretty much anyone making around $30-$90,000 a year; the more you make, the less help you get”, explained reporter Tom Foreman.

Two other elements of the health care bill, beyond politics and describing the law’s impact, also got significant coverage last week. One was the threats to lawmakers, which accounted for 13% of the health care coverage. A shooter allegedly blew out the glass in the Arizona home of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with a pellet gun, and someone hurled a brick through the New York office window of Rep. Louise Slaughter. Reportedly, at least 10 Democratic lawmakers have been threatened and are under increased security.

NBC host Brian Williams said on Wednesday March 24, “The rise in tension and political division has been months, years, in the making. Sunday’s party line vote in the house sent it over the top. What amounted to a huge victory for the White House was instead a rallying cry for the opposition.” Many on the left blamed Republicans for inflaming the threats, such as the March 24 Huffington Post article that said “Sarah Palin is targeting—yes, with gun sights—House Democrats facing tough reelection fights” in response to her Facebook page that had a map highlighting the vulnerable democrats. 

Also at 13% was coverage of the legislative process, including the last-minute deal making that allowed the president and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to win over skeptical Blue Dog conservative Democrats. On March 22, 2010, CBS News Congressional Correspondent Nancy Cordes summarized the process: “It was a challenge, right to the end. Just hours before the vote, the president was still negotiating with wavering lawmakers, even issuing his executive order, reiterating a ban on federal funding for abortion in order to clinch six crucial votes from anti-abortion Democrats, led by Michigan’s Bart Stupak.”

In the Rest of the News

Similar to the week before, the economy was the second-biggest story last week, though it trailed well behind health care. It filled 9% of the newshole studied, just one percentage point more than the week before. And as was true the week earlier, much of that coverage focused on the unveiling of a federal initiative. In this case it was an adjustment to the mortgage relief program for unemployed homeowners who were “underwater,” or owning a mortgage that was higher than the current value of the home. A third of the economic coverage focused on housing, much of it on the Home Affordable Modification Program.

The third biggest story of the week was the Israel-Palestine conflict and its impact on US-Israel relations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington for a schedule that included remarks to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and a closed-door meeting with President Obama. The goal was to ease tensions over Israel’s establishment of Jewish settlements in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem, but at the end of the week, an impasse appeared to remain. Haaretz reported that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, described the diplomatic situation between the two countries as the worst crisis in 35 years.

Two other foreign stories were among the top five storylines in the news last week. No. 4 revolved around Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal. News organizations investigated questions over how Benedict had addressed cases in years past.

The New York Times on March 25 reported that “Top Vatican officials—including the future Pope Benedict XVI—did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.”

A story on ABCNews.com March 26 described mounting pressure on the Church in a story that highlighted the demands of some of the church’s most strident critics. “As outrage mounted over the latest Catholic Church sex scandal, writer Christopher Hitchens called for the arrest of Pope Benedict XVI and singer Sinead O’Connor said the pope should face a criminal investigation.”

The Vatican responded to the criticism, in part, by suggesting the media were guilty of misrepresenting things. An editorial in the Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, claimed “the prevalent tendency in the media is to ignore the facts and stretch interpretations.”

The No. 5 story, also at 3%, was focused on Google’s disagreements with China over Internet censorship and its decision to move operations to Hong Kong.

Lead Newsmaker

President Obama was the top lead newsmaker again last week (to be a lead newsmaker a person must be referred to in at least 50% of the story). He has been a top newsmaker every week so far this year. The week of his health care triumph, he was the dominant figure in 9% of the stories studied. That represents only a slight increase over recent weeks when Obama was the dominant figure in 8% of stories in the weeks of March 15-21 and March 1-7. 

Three other newsmakers came in behind the President, each at about 2%. Pope Benedict was the second leading newsmaker (the most coverage Benedict had received since his May 2009 visit to the Holy Land). Benjamin Netanyahu was third, followed by former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.

Palin made news last week by campaigning for her former presidential running mate Senator John McCain, who is seeking reelection in Arizona. With her wide appeal among Tea Party activists, Palin was seen as bolstering McCain’s conservative credentials. 

That level of attention in the press is not unusual for Palin, the leading Republican newsmaker according to NCI data in 2009. But it was her highest level of coverage since her February 6 speech at the National Tea Party Convention, when she was a lead newsmaker in 3% of stories during the following week (February 8-14).

The man whose reelection is in question, McCain, was a lead newsmaker in a little over 1% of stories last week.

About the NCI

PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 52 different outlets from five sectors of the media: print, online, network TV, cable and radio. (See List of Outlets.) The weekly study, which includes some 1,100 stories, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of that media narrative and differences among news platforms. The percentages are based on "newshole," or the space devoted to each subject in print and online and time on radio and TV. (See Our Methodology.) In addition, these reports also include a rundown of the week’s leading newsmakers, a designation given to people or institutions who account for at least 50% of a given story.

Jesse Holcomb, Vadim Nikitin, Laura Santhanam, and Tricia Sartor of PEJ