The Other Way the Media Dropped the Ball on Healthcare Coverage

Counter protesters outside of the Supreme Court on the last day of oral arguments. (Flickr/Bsivad)

by Regina G. Lawrence and Matthew L. Schafer

Recently, Fox News and CNN have been raked over the coals for erroneously reporting that the Supreme Court struck down the Affordable Care Act.  Watching the botched coverage after the fact, is, to say the least, painful.  In their zeal to be first to report on the historic decision, they forgot that the goal is to be first and right.  And, now, these errors will be forever memorialized on YouTube here.

It would be inaccurate, however, to say that Fox News and CNN are the only news outlets that have been irresponsible in covering the healthcare debate.  Indeed, they, along with their media counterparts across the country, have failed in another way: they have been unable to explain and, more importantly, correct the record relating to healthcare in the run-up to the Court’s decision.

The latest New York Times/CBS poll shows that 68% of Americans wanted to see the Court overturn the individual mandate.  This time last year just 54% of Americans opposed the mandate, and a year before that just 40% of Americans thought passing the healthcare law in general was a bad thing.  What gives?

For one, as the New York Times has reported, conservative groups have spent over $200 million in negative advertising against the healthcare law, against only $69 million in favor.

But there is far more to the story than just money.  Recently, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne pointed the finger at the media, arguing that they “are partly to blame” for the prevailing climate of opinion around the law.

Citing data by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Dionne notes that the media peddled terms like “government-run” much more than “pre-existing conditions,” for example.

Few, however, have looked past prominent frames like “government-run,” “Obamacare,” and “death panels” to focus on the media’s deeper and more complicated culpability.  Given countless opportunities to help Americans understand what the healthcare law actually does, the media have often balked at sorting out the facts, covering politics over policy.

Case in point: In reporting the findings of its own poll, the Times pointed out the ad spending disparity and interviewed many individual voters, relaying in detail their perceptions of the bill: socialist, rationing, and budget-busting, among others.

The pithy quote from one voter, Sandy Schiff, sums up the current state of public opinion about the law: “A lot of people say, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts.  It’s an emotional issue.’”

Nowhere in the article does the reporter pause to compare what these voters believe with what the factual record shows.

In an unending effort to stay above the fray, journalists leash any purported fact with the incumbent “supporters say” or “detractors argue.”  

A recent CNN article took the same approach: “While it was not the comprehensive national health care system liberals initially sought, supporters said the law would reduce health care costs, expand coverage and protect consumers.”

The journalist left it at that, never mentioning that the Congressional Budget Office projected that by 2016 34 million more non-elderly Americans will have health insurance as a result of the law.

In an unending effort to stay above the fray, journalists leash any purported fact with the incumbent “supporters say” or “detractors argue.”  This drains facts of any authoritative or credible value and leaves it up to readers to choose which side – not facts – they find most convincing.

In short, at some point journalists began confusing being neutral with being fair.  They disclaimed responsibility for informing the public, choosing instead to repeat the claims of opinion makers on each side of the aisle.  This may be quick and easy in today’s fast-paced media environment, but the public needs something more than quick and easy.


About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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