How The Media Covered Health Care Reform

A new study of the media’s coverage of health reform from June 2009 through March 2010 suggests that the press has done little to inform the public about the law and may have contributed to the mass confusion and opposition that exists towards the policy:

— Health care coverage was the No. 1 story in the mainstream press from June 2009 through March 2010.

— The debate centered more on politics than the workings of the health care system. Fully 41% of health care coverage focused on the tactics and strategy of the debate while various reform proposals filled another 23%. But only 9% of the coverage focused on a core issue — how our health care system currently functions, what works and what doesn’t.

— Opponents of health care legislation won the message war. A Nexis search of key terms in the health care debate finds that opponents’ terms appeared almost twice as often (about 18,000 times) as supporters’ top terms (about 11,000). In short, the opponents’ attacks on government-run health care resonated more widely than the supporters’ attacks on the insurance industry.


None of this is terribly surprising, of course. The media covered the politics of health care — the death panels and ‘government takeover’ memes — because they were more sensationalistic and popular than the boring complexities of how the public option could compete with private plans or whether the individual mandate penalty should be structured as a percentage or a flat fee. The truth is, blogs (including this one) also fell into the trap of chasing the August-themed town hall mania, but I would argue that the bloggers (including this one) did it better than the mainstream press by actually deconstructing the charges and explaining why they’re wrong. The mainstream press too often fell into the he-said/she-said frame, allowing disingenuous arguments to go unchecked.

But the larger point here is that the health coverage in the far more influential mainstream press did very little to serve the public interest and as the debate progressed, Americans became more, not less, confused about the policy. “A solid majority of Americans consistently said the health care debate was hard to understand — a number that increased from 63% in July 2009 to 69% in December 2009, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People & Press.”

Republicans successfully exploited the media’s desire for easy to understand left/right talking points coverage and flooded the airwaves with all kinds of attacks, forcing Democrats to respond and the media to amplify. For instance, during my appearances on cable news shows, the producers would ask me for “my take” on the issue in a pre-show interview and input the answers into the computer without ever interrogating my responses. The more confrontational I became, the more praise I received. During one particularly heated segment, the producer came into my ear and told me what a good job I’ve done ‘shouting down’ my conservative opponent. The veracity of my responses or the informational value of the segment was completely irrelevant. It was the back and forth that mattered most.

That said, it’s difficult to gauge what effect all this had on public opinion or acceptance of the health care bill. My guess is Americans saw their leaders screaming at each other and concluded that the truth was somewhere in the middle. The administration will now try to use the lull in health care stories to educate the public about the specifics of the bill. But my hunch is that given the media’s recent preoccupation with detailing how the bill falls short of political expectations rather than covering the implementation challenges (the process of actually enforcing all of the new regulatory changes and coverage expansion), the public will be no more informed about reform until the law actually does what its name promises — improve access and lower costs.