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Scholars knock media coverage

By Carol Gentry
1/29/2010 © Health News Florida

Florida media scholars say it’s no surprise that the public doesn’t know what’s in the health-reform bills now stuck in Congress, even after months of heavy media coverage. In fact, they say, most media coverage has actually added to the public’s confusion. 

Very little broadcast time or print space has been devoted to explaining, point-by-point, the major parts of the legislation, say three top researchers in the field from University of Florida, Florida State University and University of South Florida.
“It tends to be horse-race-oriented, not issue-oriented,” said Monica Ancu, USF-St. Petersburg assistant professor in Journalism & Media Studies. “It’s void of real policy information.”

Her counterpart at FSU, Assistant Professor Jeanette Castillo, agreed that reporters avoided the hard and time-consuming task of explanation. 

“The message from the media is that the bill is convoluted and complex,” Castillo said. Most news accounts settled for “gossipy tales of the wooing of individual senators” and a “circus-like atmosphere of rumor and fear-mongering.”

With a few exceptions – including the New York Times and National Public Radio – “the news media haven’t done a great job of covering the health care reform debates,” said Kim Walsh-Childers, UF journalism professor.

(Disclosure: She is a member of Health News Florida’s board of directors.)

Walsh-Childers said many Americans get their information from talk radio or blogs, “which are far less likely to provide balanced, complete information than are traditional news outlets, especially newspapers.”

“Even those who read newspapers may be getting far more information about the political strategies (of) the various stakeholders … than they are about what those proposals actually would mean for the average family,” Walsh-Childers continued.

She offered examples: “Democrats are worried that they’ll lose the support of Big Labor if they insist on keeping the ‘Cadillac tax’ on high-value insurance plans” or “Conservative Democrats are insisting they won’t support a bill unless it includes a ban on the use of federal funds for abortion.”

“These stories are really about politics, not about what health care reform means to the average family, so even if you’re reading those, you’re not learning much about how the bill would affect you,” she said.

Coverage of President Bill Clinton’s effort to reform health care in the early 1990s had the same weakness, according to research conducted at the time. But it’s even worse now, WalshChilders suggested, for two reasons:

The 24-hour news cycle requires that reporters constantly come up with new angles, and it doesn’t leave time for much analysis of key parts of the legislation. It’s easier to do stories on who’s supporting or opposing the bill from day to day.

The other reason is that many experienced reporters have been laid off, leaving no one in the newsroom who understands health-care finance and policy.

“Health care reform is an incredibly complex topic, and it takes someone with a fair amount of knowledge to understand even the language used in some of the proposals,” Walsh-Childers said.

The voters’ confusion emerged in a series of surveys sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, as reported by Health News Florida this week. Surveyors found that while a majority said they were opposed to the legislation, support grew markedly when survey participants found out the major parts of the plan.

Three-fourths became more favorable when they heard about tax credits for small businesses and two-thirds liked what they heard about health exchanges, constraints on health insurers and plugging the Medicare prescription-drug “doughnut hole.”

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of a health overhaul that budget analysts say would increase the number of Americans covered by at least 31 million and – while costing nearly $1 trillion over 10 years – curb hyperinflation enough to reduce the deficit.

The bills would require all Americans to buy insurance, but would make it easier to do so by providing tax incentives for small businesses that provide coverage and subsidies for lower- and middle-income families purchasing it on their own.

A health-insurance exchange that would make it easier to compare policies would be created. And insurers would not be allowed to turn away customers who have pre-existing conditions or drop policyholders when they get sick.

But the House and Senate versions differ enough that neither has been willing to accept the other’s bill.

To be sure, superficial media coverage isn’t the only factor contributing to the stalled effort in Congress. As Kaiser Health News reported, those who already had coverage saw no great advantage to them and Medicare beneficiaries feared loss of some extra benefits in their health plans. Discussion of taxes alarmed and confused many people, and the horse-trading for votes was a public turn-off.

--Carol Gentry, Editor, can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail. Letters to the Editor are welcome.