Less "Horse-Race" Reporting on Health Care
Sunday’s column on the need for less horse-race coverage of health-care reform sparked a large reader response. One was from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist. The column “hits on a pet peeve,” he wrote in his Sunday blog: “reporting that focuses on how policy proposals are supposedly playing, rather than what’s actually in them.”
Krugman believes that reporters often gravitate to horse-race stories because they are easier to research, easier to write and “safer” to cover. “If you cover policy, and go beyond dueling quotes, you have to make some factual assertions -- and people who prefer to believe otherwise will get mad.”
I believe The Post needs to provide horse-race coverage because it has a large and devoted readership of political junkies and wonks. In that regard, it’s done a superb job. But my column argued for much more baseline reporting for ordinary readers who are confused about even the most fundamental health-care concepts and proposals.
In his blog post, Krugman wrote: “It’s easier to research horse-race stuff. To report on policy, a reporter has to master the policy issues fairly well. That’s not easy, especially for journalists who have specialized in up close and personal rather than wonkery -- and policy issues change from year to year.”
Stuart M. Butler, a Heritage Foundation vice president and health care authority, made a similar point when I interviewed him for the column last week. In his experience, he said, journalists covering health care “in general...almost always have very little knowledge of it.” And he said a number of journalists who cover the issue have told him their editors believe that if they write primer-type stories “their readers will be bored by it.”
Butler noted that providing basic educational-type stories is not common for most news organizations, including The Post. “They tend to look at it as a political issue,” he said of the media. He also speculated that much of the anger expressed at the recent town hall meetings on health care was because citizens are confused by the issue.
“Americans want to know what’s going on here,” he said. “People are very confused by health care. They don’t understand the system. And they’re frightened by change. So if the press doesn’t help them understand it better, who will? When people don’t understand things, they get frightened and angry and they oppose things.”
While conceding the complexity of the issue, Butler believes that news organizations such as The Post “can take a complex issue like health care and really reduce it to language people can understand without dumbing it down.”
I think The Post did that well in a large graphic on June 9 titled, “In Search of Health-Care Reform.” The content was provided by lead health-care reporter Ceci Connolly and graphics reporter Karen Yourish. This clear-headed graphic presentation allowed readers to digest complex data in easily consumed bites. In brief paragraphs, it provided a glossary of basic terms (such as “Third-party payer” and “Employer mandate”) and described key players (insurance industry, doctors, drug companies, employers, hospitals, etc.). It tracked the increased spending for health care with a visual that showed where the money comes from and where it goes. And it laid out “most likely options” for reform in short bulleted summaries. The entire thing had a “Health-Care-For-Dummies” feel to it, which is precisely what many readers have said they want.
Connolly also narrated some similarly smart and basic “info graphics” on The Post’s Web site.
Finally, The Post recently published the first of what will be a series of truth-squadding features on health care. Titled “Under the Microscope,” it will examine the competing claims of interest groups to help readers cut through the fog of rhetoric.
That’s the kind of reporting readers say they want. As a reader identifying himself as “MrCleaveland” wrote in response to Sunday’s column: “I don’t care about reading virtually identical stories about protests or blue dogs or greedy insurance companies blah blah blah. I would like to know how this would work if it passes. I have no idea.”
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