PEJ News Coverage Index: Oct. 12-18, 2009, Health Care Re-emerges and ‘Balloon Boy' Takes Flight

  • October 20, 2009

A vote by a key Senate committee and the role of one of the Senate's few swing voters pushed the health care debate to the top of the news agenda last week.

For the week of October 12-18, the health care battle accounted for 21% of the newshole studied, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. That marks the highest level of coverage  since the week of September 7-13, when Barack Obama delivered a prime-time speech on health care and a formerly obscure Congressman named Joe Wilson made headlines by shouting “you lie” at the President.

Last week, the catalyst for much of that coverage was a 14-to-9 vote in the Senate Finance Committee to approve a bill crafted by chairman Senator Max Baucus—a milestone in a legislative process that had plodded along for weeks. A key character in that story was the lone Republican who broke ranks to vote with the Democratic majority. Maine Senator Olympia Snowe—who also cast a rare GOP vote for Obama's stimulus package—found herself back in the headlines, generally portrayed in the media narrative as a savvy power broker.

In a week during which the Dow Jones surged over the 10,000 mark, the economy was the No. 2 topic (at 12% of the coverage studied). But the story with the real momentum at week's end was the bizarre saga of Falcon Heene, a.k.a. “balloon boy.” What started as a made-for-cable white-knuckle event—live October 15 coverage of a free floating balloon thought to be carrying the helpless six-year-old—ended with law enforcement officials vowing to press charges against his family, with the bizarre interlude of watching the boy vomit on two morning network TV shows.  For the full week, the story filled 8% of the newshole. But it was the No. 1 topic (19% of the newshole) in the period from October 15-18.

Read the full report Health Care Re-emerges and ‘Balloon Boy' Takes Flight on the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.