Monday, August 31, 2009

Health reform shorts:
Why we don't know what "public option" means

An amplification of this.

The Washington Post ombudsman last week had an interesting column responding to complaints about the paper's coverage of the fight over universal health care reform. He explains that readers send him notes like this:

"Your paper's coverage continues in the 'horse race' mode," complained Bill Byrd of Falls Church. "Who's up, who's down . . . political spin, personal political attacks.

... Many have said that Post stories routinely assume a foundation of knowledge that they simply don't have. Some said that they don't understand basic terms like "public option" or "single payer." They want primers, not prognostications. And they're craving stories on what it means for ordinary folks and their families.

Neal Gabler, writing in the Los Angeles Times, adds another implication of the critique of the media: reporting has not helped its audience discern what is true.

... a citizenry is only as well-informed as the quality of information it receives. One can't expect Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or the Republican Party or even the Democrats to provide serious, truthful assessments of a complex health plan. Truth has to come from somewhere else -- from a reliable, objective, trustworthy source.

That source should be the media, and there has been, in fact, some excellent coverage of healthcare, especially by our better newspapers and especially lately when the untruths have become a torrent, rousing reporters to provide a corrective. But overall, the coverage has not been exactly edifying. According to the Pew Research Center, 16% of the stories in its media sample last week were devoted to healthcare, but three-quarters of that coverage was either about legislative politics or the town halls.

That is, health care reform is drowning in horserace journalism, more suited to covering a sporting event than helping people form smart opinions about life and death policies.

Matt Thompson at has offered a critique of the way "news" is currently delivered to us that provides a good description of why the ombudsman is hearing what he hears and Gabler is so frustrated. This article should be required reading for anyone trying to understand discontent with journalism.

Thompson says the media are pretty good at telling us "what just happened." That's fine, if we already know (as we hope the reporter does), 1) "the longstanding facts," 2) "how the journalist knows what s/he knows," and 3) "what we don't know." Unfortunately, the latter three are almost never part of the story, yet without them "the news" is just a meaningless stream of gobbledeeguck with occasional emotional hooks.

Truly -- go read Thompson.

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