Summary of Findings

In a busy late summer news stretch, Americans continued to track news about the health care debate more closely than other major stories last week. The economy, the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the strange case of a California woman rescued from long-time captors also vied for the public’s attention.

Many also followed reports about preparations for the second wave of the swine flu this fall, but not at the interest levels seen during the first wave in early May. Still, large majorities do know several key facts about the H1N1 virus and the vaccine being developed to limit its spread. About seven-in-ten correctly answer questions about who is most likely to be infected by the virus, how serious most cases are expected to be and whether people will need a separate vaccine for the seasonal flu.

With repeated warnings in the media and from government officials about the upcoming flu season, a large majority (69%) knows that experts think most cases of the swine flu are not life-threatening. A similar proportion (67%) correctly says that the illness appears more likely to infect children and young adults than older adults. And 71% know that the government says the vaccine will need to be administered in addition to – not instead of – a separate vaccine for the usual seasonal flu.

According to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted August 28-31 among 1,006 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 30% say they followed the health care debate more closely than any other story, while smaller shares chose the economy (17%), Kennedy’s death (17%) or the California case (14%) as the story they followed most closely. Kennedy’s death dominated media coverage, taking up 27% of the newshole, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Only about one-in-ten (9%) say they most closely followed news about the impending swine flu outbreak and the availability of a vaccine. Reporting on swine flu amounted to 3% of coverage. The week of April 27-May 3, when reporting about swine flu took up 31% of the newshole, about four-in-ten (39%) said they were following the outbreak more closely than any other news story. No other story came close.

However, the public is voicing greater concern about its spread than in May: 45% say they are very (10%) or somewhat (35%) worried that they or a family member will be exposed to the swine flu. About a third (34%) say they are not too worried and 21% say they are not worried at all.

In May, as outbreaks were reported in many states – though with relatively few fatalities, 36% said they were very (8%) or somewhat worried (28%) about exposure to the flu strain. Another 37% said they were not too worried and 27% said they were not worried at all.

The current fears are similar to those seen in 2007 about exposure to a drug-resistant staph infection that was then in the news. That October, 44% said they were worried (12% very, 32% somewhat) that they or a family member could be exposed to the infection. About a third (32%) said they were not too worried and 23% said they were not worried at all.

With the fall flu season just getting started, 26% of Americans say they are following news about the swine flu and the availability of the vaccine very closely. In early May, during the spring outbreak, 43% said they were following the spread of the H1N1 virus very closely.

Swine Flu Worries and Knowledge

Women are more likely to be concerned about the spread of swine flu than men. More than half (54%) say they are worried that they or someone in their household will be exposed to the flu, compared with 35% of men. They also are more likely to say correctly that the virus is expected to infect more children and young adults than older adults (72% vs. 62%).

On the other two knowledge questions, there is little difference between men and women. There also is little difference on those questions between those with or without children under 18 in the household.

Overall, about four-in-ten (39%) answered two of the three knowledge questions correctly; 36% answered all three correctly and 21% answered just one right. About four-in-ten of those over 40 answered all three correctly, compared with 28% of those under 40. As is typical with knowledge questions, those with higher levels of education were more likely to answer the questions correctly than those with less education. Notably, there is little relationship between knowledge of swine flu and concern over exposure to the disease.

In terms of the severity of the illness, there are only limited differences based on age or gender in the percentages saying correctly that most cases are not life-threatening. Among partisans, about three-in-four Republicans (77%) and independents (73%) get that question right, compared with 59% of Democrats

Large majorities across the board know that the government is recommending that Americans get a swine flu vaccine in addition to the seasonal flu shot.

Confidence in Government Efforts

Almost two-thirds of Americans say they are very (18%) or somewhat (47%) confident in the government’s ability to deal with the swine flu; the remaining one third is not too (19%) or not at all (15%) confident in the government’s ability to handle the virus. People are less confident in the media’s ability to accurately report on the swine flu: Just more than half are very confident (17%) or somewhat confident (36%) in the press’ ability to cover swine flu, while 46% have more doubts.

There is virtually no difference in opinion by gender, age or income when it comes to confidence in government, but Democrats are notably more likely to say they are confident in the government’s ability to handle swine flu (76%) than are independents (64%) or Republicans (54%).

The pattern is similar for media confidence, though women are more likely than men to have confidence in the media’s ability to report accurately on swine flu (58% confident versus 48% confident). About two-thirds of Democrats (65%), and half of Republicans (49%) and roughly half of independents (46%) express confidence in press coverage of the virus.

Top News Stories

In a busy news week, the public continued to name the health care debate as its top story. Three-in-ten say they followed news about health care more closely than any other story, and 40% say they paid very close attention to the reform debate. Interest was high despite the fact that coverage was lower than it had been in recent weeks. Some 11% of the newshole was devoted to the debate over health care reform, according to PEJ, down from 28% during the previous week.

The public also maintained interest in news about the U.S. economy. Fully 45% followed economic news very closely, while 17% say this was the story they followed more closely than any other. Coverage of the economy equaled that of the health care debate, filling 11% of the newshole.

The media’s top story of the week was far-and-away the death of Ted Kennedy: the 27% of newshole devoted to this story far outpaced coverage of the economy and health care. But the death of the last Kennedy brother did not top the public’s news agenda. About three-in-ten (28%) followed news about Ted Kennedy’s death very closely and 17% named it their top story of the week. Interest was significantly higher among Democrats (38% very closely) than among Republicans (21% very closely).

The discovery of Jaycee Dugard, a 29-year-old woman who had been kidnapped and held hostage in a California town since she was 11, attracted the very close attention of 27% of the public; 14% followed news about the story more closely than any other. Women under age 50 were especially likely to say they followed the story more closely than any other (23% did so).

News reports about swine flu and the availability of a vaccine were followed very closely by about a quarter of the public (26%), while 9% named news about swine flu as their top story of the week. The media devoted 3% of newshole to the story.

The public paid relatively little attention to reports about CIA interrogation methods and an investigation into alleged abuse of terrorism suspects. About two-in-ten (21%) say they followed the story very closely and just 3% name news about CIA interrogation methods as their top story of the week.

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 24-30, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 28-31, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 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