Summary of Findings

Interest in the health care reform debate has remained extremely high throughout the summer and more than nine-in-ten Americans say the issue is important to them. Still, despite the public focus on health care news, two thirds continue to say the issue is hard to understand.

With Congress returning from its August recess, more than half of Americans (56%) say they plan to watch President Obama’s prime time speech to lawmakers Wednesday night on health care. More Democrats (72%) say they plan to watch than Republicans (41%) or independents (52%).

According to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted September 3-6 among 1,005 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, four-in-ten Americans overall say they followed the health care debate very closely last week. Interest has been at about that level or higher since mid-July. About three-in-ten (29%) say they followed the health care debate more closely than any other story last week. Once again, it was the most closely followed story of the week by a wide margin.

More than seven-in-ten (73%) Americans say the health care debate affects them personally, down slightly from the 78% that said the same in mid-July. In the current survey, 26% say it does not affect them personally, up slightly from 21% in July.

Nearly all Americans (93%) view the issue as important, about the same as the 95% that said the issue was important in July. More than seven-in-ten (72%) say the issue is interesting, matching the proportion in the earlier survey, 26% see it as boring.

Still, interest and media coverage notwithstanding, 67% say the health care debate remains hard to understand. That’s about the same as the 63% that said the issue was hard to understand in mid-July. About three-in-ten (31%) say health care reform is easy to understand, little changed since July.

More than six-in-ten Americans (63%) say they have seen ads about health care reform in the past few weeks, while 36% say they have not. Substantially more people (28%) have seen ads with a mostly negative message about health care reform than mostly positive (12%). About one-in-five (21%) say they have seen a mix of positive and negative messages about health care reform in the ads. The proportion of people who report seeing mostly negative ads has grown steadily since mid-July, when it was 18%. In early August, the proportion was 22%.

Most See Mix of Good and Bad Economic News

Almost seven-in-ten Americans (68%) say they are hearing a mix of good and bad news about the economy these days; 27% say they are hearing mostly bad news and 5% say they are hearing mostly good news. The proportion saying they are hearing a mix of good and bad economic news is at its highest level since the question was first asked nine months ago, edging the previous high of 64% reached in May.

Health Care Debate and Economy Remain Top Stories

News about health care reform and the nation’s economy continues to dominate the public’s attention. Almost three-in-ten (29%) say health care reform is the story they followed most closely last week, while 16% say they followed economic news most closely. Asked to rate how closely they followed these stories, 41% say they followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely, while 40% say the same about the debate over health care reform.

About a quarter (26%) say they followed reports about swine flu and the availability of a vaccine very closely; an equal percentage followed news about the discovery of 29-year-old Jaycee Dugard, who had been kidnapped and help captive since she was 11, very closely. Almost as many very closely followed news about the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan (23%) and news about Southern California wildfires (22%). The Dugard story was followed most closely by 13% of the public, while 12% followed swine flu news most closely and 10% followed wildfire news most closely.

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, survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 3-6, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults. Data relating to news coverage – collected from August 31-September 6, 2009 – will be released Wednesday, September, 9 2009 and can be found on PEJ’s website:

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