The U.S. government has a lot on its plate right now, which means that the American public has a lot to keep up with in the news. The Pew Research Center’s latest News IQ Quiz finds a mixed picture of public awareness on key issues, with majorities aware of some key facts on health care and the economy. But other questions stump large segments of the public, including the current size of the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, the approximate level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the name of a key environmental proposal being debated in Congress.

On health care, which has dominated news coverage for much of the summer, most Americans are aware that the U.S. spends more per capita on health care than most major European nations. And more than half (56%) know that the debate in Congress over a “public option” pertains to health care legislation and not some other substantive policy area. By contrast, far fewer (18%) can correctly identify Max Baucus as chair of the Senate Finance Committee that has developed legislation to reform the U.S. health care system.

The current news quiz, conducted Oct. 1-4 among 1,002 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, asked 12 multiple choice questions about people, events and issues in the news. Respondents answered an average of 5.3 questions correctly.

The quiz included three items on the economy. The same proportion now as in the Pew Research Center’s March news quiz were able to correctly identify the unemployment rate: 53% picked 10% out of four choices. A sizeable minority overestimated the current rate (33%), far more than the number who underestimated it (5%). A third of those interviewed (33%) could correctly name Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and the same percentage correctly estimated the current level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (around 10,000 points).

Beyond health care and the economy, the survey also addressed public awareness of some facts about foreign affairs. Only about four-in-ten (42%) knew that Iran and Israel do not share a border; 27% said the two countries do share a border and 30% did not answer. In March, 69% knew that Pakistan and Afghanistan do share a border.

The current news quiz also touches on the subject of Afghanistan. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) correctly estimated that the U.S. has roughly 70,000 military personnel stationed in Afghanistan, while 25% believe the U.S. has a larger military presence there and 17% think that that U.S. force is smaller.

Among the other topics on the quiz, 75% of the public knows that Democrats control the U.S. House of Representatives, about the same as in June 2009 but a little lower than in the months immediately following the 2008 election. Nearly two-thirds (65%) could correctly identify Sonia Sotomayor as the newest member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Fewer than half (40%) could identify Glenn Beck as a TV and radio talk show host; and among the most difficult questions in the survey, just 23% of Americans are aware that legislation often referred to as “cap and trade” concerns energy and environmental policy.

Knowledge and the Health Care Debate

In the debate over health care reform, there are frequent references to how much the U.S. spends per capita in comparison with other nations. A majority of Americans (61%) answered correctly that the U.S. spends more per person on health care than most major European nations. Similarly, 56% know that the “public option” is part of the debate over health care reform. Still, a third of the public (33%) does not know what policy area discussion of a “public option” refers to, and 11% guessed incorrectly.

The hardest question on the quiz asked respondents to pick from a list the name of the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that is tasked with writing health care reform legislation. Just 18% correctly identified Montana Senator Max Baucus; another 26% chose other leading political figures (11% named Dianne Feinstein, 8% Kathleen Sibelius and 7% John McCain); more than half (56%) declined to answer.

Men generally outperformed women on the news quiz, but women held their own on two of the three questions on health care (U.S. spending vs. Europe, and the public option). More men (23%) than women (12%) could pick Max Baucus as chair of the Finance Committee.

Americans under the age of 30 were less likely than older Americans to know that the “public option” refers to health care legislation, or to correctly identify Baucus as the chair of Senate Finance. Young people were just as likely as those 50 and older to know that U.S. spends more per capita on health care than many major European nations. More than two-thirds (67%) of those between the ages of 30 and 49 got this question right.

Not surprisingly, college graduates had among the best scores on the health care questions. For example, nearly three-quarters (74%) are aware that the “public option” is a health care proposal.

Partisan Knowledge Gap

Across the 12 knowledge items tested, the biggest gap between Democrats and Republicans is on the item identifying Glenn Beck as a TV and radio talk show host. About half of Republicans (49%) knew Beck’s occupation, compared with 32% of Democrats.

There was a double-digit gap between Republicans and Democrats on three other items as well, but there was little difference on the items dealing with health care, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, or whether Iran and Israel share a border.

Knowledge on Average

To measure overall news knowledge, the 12 multiple choice questions were used to create an index ranging from zero (none correct) to 12 (all correct). On average, the public correctly answered approximately five out of 12 questions (mean 5.3). The current news IQ quiz proved harder than the one conducted earli
er this year. In March, the public correctly answered an average of 7.4 out of 12 possible questions.

In the current knowledge test, just 2% of the public answered all questions correctly (12 out of 12) and 6% failed to get a single question right. Fewer than half (44%) answered at least half the questions correctly.

Overall, Americans 50 and older answered an average of 5.8 questions correctly, while those younger than 30 answered an average of just four questions. College graduates got the highest scores among all of the groups analyzed (7.1 correct answers), while those with some college education averaged 5.3 correct answers and those with a high school education or less got 4.2 right.

Republicans and independents each averaged 5.7 correct answers, compared with five correct among Democrats. Men correctly answered an average of 5.9 of the 12 items; women answered an average of 4.7.