March 9, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Health Care Debate?

% of Newshole
Q2 2009 3.1
Q3 2009 17.5
Q4 2009 12.9
Q1 2010 14.1
Q2 2010 1.8
Q3 2010 1.6
Q4 2010 1.4
Q1 2011* 3

1.9% – Percentage of newshole devoted to health care reform since it became law in March 2010

Last week, there was significant news on the health care front. President Obama said he was willing to let states opt out of controversial provisions of the new health care law as long as they still achieve the desired results. This change in the president’s position on a polarizing domestic issue might have seemed newsworthy, but in fact attracted modest media attention last week.

According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, from February 28-March 6, coverage of the health care issue filled just 2.1% of the newshole, overwhelmed by attention to the Mideast (32%) and the economy (19.9%). It even generated less coverage than the travails of troubled sitcom star Charlie Sheen (2.2%).

When the health care bill finally was signed into law on March 23, 2010—after bitter and bruising partisan battles that extended from the summer of 2009 through the winter of 2010—many commentators predicted it would continue to be a hot domestic issue, maybe even the decisive issue in the 2010 midterm elections.

But the media coverage has not followed suit. In the 11 months from April 1, 2010 through March 6, 2011, the health care debate has accounted for only 1.9% of the overall newshole.

By way of comparison, in that same period, the economy has generated seven times the coverage, (13.3%) and the Gulf oil spill accounted for four times as much (7.6%). And the wave of protests across the Mideast, which did kick into high gear until January 2011, have attracted about twice as much attention (4.2%).

Not only has health care coverage been low in this period, it has been consistently low—with virtually no significant spikes in media attention. In seven of the 11 months between April 1, 2010 and March 6, 2011, health care accounted for less than 2% of the overall coverage.

The only month when coverage exceeded 4% of the newshole was January 2011 (4.4%). That was bolstered by a significant week of coverage (January 17-23, 2011) when the House vote to repeal health care reform filled 7.7% of the newshole. The U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, defeated a repeal effort in February—backed by a veto threat from Obama.

But however far-reaching the implications of the new law, and despite continued challenges to its implementation, the fact remains that the health care debate has largely been muted in the press for almost a year.

*January 1 – March 6, 2011