Summary of Findings

The debate over health care reform dominated the public’s news interests last week, even as other stories – including the furor over new mammogram guidelines and Sarah Palin’s book tour – vied for the news media’s attention.

Fully 41% cite the health care debate as their most closely followed story of the week, far more than the percentage citing any other story. Nearly one-in-five (18%) name reports about swine flu as their top story, while somewhat fewer (11% each) cite the new mammogram guidelines and the debate over sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan. Just 4% say that President Obama’s trip to Asia was their top story and even fewer – 2% of the public – cite news about Sarah Palin and her new book.

The health care debate also was the week’s top story in terms of news coverage, accounting for 13% of the newshole, according to a separate study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). But while Palin’s book tour drew about as much coverage as the controversy over mammogram guidelines (8% vs. 7%), reports about the new guidelines attracted far more interest among the public.

Most Americans (52%) say they have been hearing too much about Palin, while 26% say they have been hearing the right amount and 13% say they have been hearing too little about her. Far more say they are hearing too much about Palin now than in July, after her surprise resignation as Alaska’s governor (38%).

The Pew Research Center’s latest weekly News Interest Index, conducted Nov. 20-23 among 1,002 adults, finds that 70% of those who followed the news about the changes in mammogram guidelines at least fairly closely say they were surprised by new recommendations made by a federally appointed task force. And by greater than three-to-one (68% to 22%), more say they disagree than agree with the new guidelines.

The survey also finds that the public’s view about whether a health care reform bill will pass over the next year are little changed by Senate passage Nov. 21 of a procedural measure that allowed the Senate to begin debate on health care legislation. Overall, 52% say they think a bill will pass over the next year while 37% say it will not. That is little changed from the previous week, when 49% said a bill will pass.

Nearly one-in-five Republicans (18%) say they paid very close attention to news about Palin and her new book, “Going Rogue,” compared with 11% of independents and just 3% of Democrats. Yet small percentages in all three groups say this was the story they followed most closely (5% among Republicans, 1% among Democrats, 2% among independents).

Overall, the proportion saying they are hearing too much about Palin has risen from 38% in July to 52% currently. Virtually all of the increase has come among Democrats and independents. Fully 72% of Democrats say they are hearing too much about Palin, up from 45% in July. Half of independents express this view, up more modestly from 38% four months ago.

Republicans’ views about the amount of coverage of Palin have changed very little from July. As was the case at that time, nearly half of Republicans (48%) say they are hearing the right amount about Palin; 29% say they are hearing too much about the former Alaska governor while 15% say they are hearing too little.

Women tracked news about revised breast cancer screening recommendations much more closely than men last week: 45% of women say they followed reports about new guidelines on when women should get mammograms very closely, compared with 22% of men. Close to two-in-ten (17%) women say this was the story they followed most closely, compared with 5% of men.

About a quarter (26%) of women who followed the news about the new guidelines very or fairly closely say they agree with the recommendations, while 66% say they disagree. A smaller percentage of men say they agree (16%), while 72% say they disagree.

With the debate over broad health care legislation underway in Congress, partisans also express slightly different takes on the guideline changes. About three-quarters of Republicans (77%) who closely followed news about the mammogram controversy say they disagree with the panel recommendations; 15% say they agree. Among Democrats, 60% say they disagree, while close to three-in-ten (29%) agree. Among independents, 71% disagree, while 19% agree.

Equal percentages of women and men who followed this news very or fairly closely say they were surprised by the new guidelines (70% each). Partisans express roughly similar levels of surprise: 76% among Republicans, 70% among Democrats and 67% among independents.

A 52% majority of the public thinks a health care reform bill will pass over the next year; 37% say that they do not expect a bill to pass and 11% aren’t sure. Opinion on this question has been largely stable throughout the month of November. And despite the Nov. 21 procedural vote in the Senate, which allowed for debate on a bill to begin, the public did not shift its views on the prospects for reform. Respondents interviewed in the two days immediately following the vote were no more likely than those interviewed prior to the vote to say they expected a health care reform bill to pass.

As has consistently been the case, Democrats are more likely than Republicans and independents to say they think a health care reform bill will pass over the next year. Two-thirds (66%) of Democrats expect a bill to pass compared with 49% of independents and 40% of Republicans.

About a third of the public (35%) heard a lot about controversy surrounding Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try the 9/11 terror suspects in a federal court in New York; 38% heard a little about this while 27% heard nothing at all. The story registered more widely with Republicans (42% a lot) than with Democrats (29% a lot).

About the same percentage of the public heard a lot about Oprah Winfrey announcing that she will end her daytime talk show in 2011: 33% heard a lot about this, 45% a little and 22% nothing at all. Women were somewhat more likely than men to have heard a lot about this (38% compared with 28%).

A computer failure that disrupted air travel across the country did not make much of an impression on the public. Just 16% heard a lot about this story while 40% heard a little. A plurality (44%) heard nothing at all about the air travel glitch.

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 November 16-22, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected November 20-23, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults.

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