The Media and Health Reform

There’s a very interesting survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, that’s out today, dealing with media coverage of the ongoing health reform debate.

On the bright side, the survey shows that Americans are closely following the health reform deliberations.  36 percent of Americans say they’re keeping a close watch on health reform coverage, a higher percentage than exists for any other ongoing news story.

But, on the flip side, people don’t seem to be that impressed with what they’re seeing.  Seven of every 10 respondents say the news media has done either a poor or fair job of describing the effect health reform “proposals would have on people such as yourself.”  Only 23 percent say the media has done a good or excellent job in this category.

It’s not surprising that the press would have trouble scoring high marks for their health coverage.  It’s a difficult, complex issue, particularly for television and radio.  How do you break down a 1,000 page piece of legislation into a 30- or 60-second news story.  Still, some reporters are doing a far better job than others of explaining to their readers, viewers and listeners what’s at stake in this process.  Here are a few thoughts I have on how news coverage of health reform could be better than it is:

*             Don’t fall back on the tired old playbooks and paint this as a Democrats-versus-Republicans story.   Neither party is, in fact, marching in lock step when it comes to health reform.   This debate is really about several coalitions — both within and outside of Congress — trying to find an acceptable middle ground that bridges their different philosophies and perspectives.

*             The controversy over the government plan option is not the be-all, end-all of health reform.  It’s an important piece of the puzzle, to be sure, but reporters shouldn’t overlook the other aspects of reform that will directly affect the lives of patients and healthcare consumers.  There has been comparatively little attention given in the media, for example, to health delivery reforms that would incentivize healthcare providers to focus on value and patient outcomes instead of volume of services.

*             Don’t oversimplify or mischaracterize the health reform positions of different groups.  Too often, I’ve seen those who have different views than the President described as “opponents of health reform.”  Any reporter who falls into that trap is just being lazy.  If you look closely, virtually everyone involved in this debate is not, in fact, defending the present system.  Rather, they have their own set of reform ideas to bring to the table. 

*             Reporters should focus less on the politics and more on the policy, even if it isn’t as sexy a story.  It matters less which political leader or which political party is perceived as a “winner” or “loser” at the end of this process than it does whether we’ve enacted legislation that improves the accessibility, affordability and quality of our healthcare system.  That’s the story that I, and I think most Americans, want to see covered.