Health care dominated the media recently, and this past week was no exception: a survey by the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that health care coverage accounted for a staggering 37 percent of the newshole. But despite all the coverage, more than half of Americans polled say they still don't understand how reform will effect them. The Pew Center's Mark Jurkowitz talks about how a topic that's been so widely covered can still be so little understood.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Nine-fifteen on a Sunday morning a special edition of America’s Newsroom. It certainly is a historic day.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We are back on a very historic day. If you’re watching all this unfold -
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: - the discussions. There’s protesters everywhere, lots of excitement on this big historic day, so you’re going to -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Every week, historic or otherwise, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism surveys news coverage across the media. Last week, the Health Care Bill was far and away the leading story, and yet, despite the news media’s devotion to the topic, a CBS news poll found that more than half of Americans say they still don't understand how health care reform will affect them. Mark Jurkowitz is the Associate Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He says that while newspapers and networks devoted about a third of their space to the issue, and websites about 20 percent, it was cable and radio talk shows that owned the story. In fact, they devoted a staggering 80 percent of their news hole to health care.
MARK JURKOWITZ: From day one, this story has very much been a talk show story. The cable and radio talk shows have devoted the most time to it. And that’s different, for example, than the economy, which was actually a story that we found was covered more in, like, network TV and newspapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did the venue determine to some degree the nature of the coverage?
MARK JURKOWITZ: To some degree that’s true. Any story that generates this much attention in cable and radio talk shows, which are highly ideological, you’re going to get competing and argumentative versions of the truth. Our sister organization, the Research Center for the People and the Press, asked a series of questions throughout last year about whether or not the health care debate was easy to understand or hard to understand. When they first asked the question in July, I believe about 63 percent of the people said it was hard to understand. When they asked it in December, 69 percent of people said it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s interesting. It’s not the first time there seems to have been an inverse relationship between certain kinds of media consumption and understanding of an issue. There was a poll, I think, after the first Gulf War that asked people about the context of the war, the nations involved and so forth, and it turned out that the more people watched cable news, the less informed they were. In fact, the only area in which they seemed to know more than those who didn't get their primary information from cable news was that they could identify the Patriot Missile.
MARK JURKOWITZ: [LAUGHS] Certainly those cable news shows at night, they're siblings of talk radio. Depending on who the host is, you’re either getting a liberal or conservative argument that you may or may not believe. On many of those shows, the traditional journalistic idea of let’s get the truth, or the nearest version of the truth we can find, is supplanted by the idea of, hey, if guy A is going to argue this, we'll bring on guy B to argue the polar opposite and, you know, basically leaves people sort of making decisions through the prism of their own ideology, often. And let's say this about the health care debate, in all fairness: This is a very complicated issue. This was a very complicated legislative process. You had partisans and politicians on both sides of the issue who were characterizing it in a self-serving way. That also left people wondering what the real version of the facts were, so you’ve got a perfect storm of confusion, in some ways, on this story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And a place where the media I assume are supposed to step in and help clarify. You know, I was watching CNN the night of the vote and they kept referring to how the bill was going to go to the Senate for some fixes. They never said what they were, not once. They had so much time to fill. All Wolf Blitzer did was stare at the clock and say, now we've got 200 votes and 216 is the magic number. Three times he did that. Somebody could have mentioned some of the leading fixes. I had to wait for a chart in The New York Times.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Look, the FOX News Channel, with a decidedly ideological look in primetime, has been the success story in terms of audience and ratings on cable news. MSNBC, which for years floundered in primetime, would probably say that they've achieved a good deal of success, making themselves the ideological polar opposite of the FOX News Channel in primetime, and they're happy with that. CNN, in some respects the one cable network now that is not overtly ideological in terms of the orientation of its primetime hosts, has in some ways been struggling the most. So it may well be that they decided, hey, the people who are going to follow us now are essentially pretty hard-core political junkies, and they really do want opinionated political coverage. That may, in fact, be the working theorem, and it may be correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you so much.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Brooke, you’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.