In Depth

Tackling Issue of Reform

Difficult Story Will Require Creativity, Diligence of Reporters

The national debate on health care reform is heating up, but the role the media will play in furthering the discussion remains to be seen.

During the Clinton administration, the debate quickly devolved into emotional advertising and spin. And Gary Schwitzer, associate professor at the Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications and author of a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report on the state of health care journalism, doesn’t expect much from this go-round.

“Those types of ads have already begun, largely from conservative forces that will battle any kind of meaningful health care reform,” he said. “If their pockets are deep enough to create [video news releases] or satellite media tours and have smart-sounding people who are glib in 15-second soundbites travel the country, this debate won’t be much of a debate.”

With layoffs of health care journalists at print and TV outlets, there are even fewer cool heads to keep the debate alive and on track. “Journalists are more outgunned than ever before,” said Andrew Holtz, an AHCJ board member and former CNN medical reporter. “The health care industry hasn’t slashed the budgets of their own PR machine to the extent that newsroom have cut back on their staff. So there’s more temptation to rush to air without the kind of thorough research you would like them to do.”

Trudy Lieberman, AHCJ president and director of the health and medicine reporting program at the Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York, said it’s hard to find journalists who regularly cover such issues as Medicare on a local level. “The issues in Washington are not reaching the man in the street and aren’t being written about on a local level,” she said. “I don’t see much on TV that people are covering in terms of reform issues.”

Covering health care reform with TV’s 45-second story format is nearly impossible, said the experts, signaling the likelihood that on-air coverage of health care reform will be limited.

“It’s not visual and it’s complex,” said Mr. Holtz. “It’s easier to do a story about your own hospital that has a new gamma knife; you can crank that out with very little resources. But the story on the impact of health care reform requires time to devote to research. The tighter newsroom budgets are, the first thing that gets cut is the tough stories.”

But he rejected the idea that the health care reform story is impossible to illustrate visually. “You can find local people who can illustrate the story,” he said. “The key is knowing who those people are. You can talk to … someone from the Chamber of Commerce who can crystallize, synthesize the comments of their members.”

Not everything is grim. After speaking to several health care journalists, Mr. Holtz has found reason for some cautious optimism. “A lot of the reporters were around during the Clinton years and learned the lessons, and that will hopefully raise the level of reporting,” he said.

Mr. Holtz pointed to a CNN story in February on the stimulus package’s provision that funded comparative research on medical practices. CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and anchor Heidi Collins interviewed Betsy McCaughey; they identified her as a “Republican and former New York lieutenant governor,” but failed to mention she was one of the major players who helped torpedo the Clinton-era health care reforms. In the interview, Ms. McCaughey railed against the reform as tantamount to health care rationing.

However, two days later, Ms. Lieberman revealed all on the Columbia Journalism Review’s Web site, calling the report “a piece of bad journalism that ranks among the most irresponsible health stories I’ve seen over the past year.”

“It helps to completely identify those people who are making claims about health care—their backgrounds, their affiliations and other factors,” she said. “Reporters and anchors should … refrain from passing on messages of groups with interests in reform one way or another, without further explanation of where these messages are coming from and why.”

Ms. Cohen, who earlier spoke to TVWeek for this NewsPro report, could not be reached for comment on the McCaughey interview at presstime.

The local ramification of national reform is a compelling reason for local stations to cover the topic, Ms. Lieberman said. “[Reforms] may mean that a lot of people who don’t have health insurance will be required to go out and buy it. It’s not as interesting as some new CAT scan machine where you can show a doctor in a white coat. But these are really important issues. It calls for creative work on the part of the TV producer.”