Getting to the Nitty-Gritty on Plans

Mar 23, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Health care policy is one of the hottest issues in the primary race between Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But, although they spar about their divergent plans, neither of them has spelled out the details.
In a story on this topic for the Columbia Review of Journalism, AHCJ President Trudy Lieberman, a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, described the level of conversation: “The topic of health care reform in the presidential campaign thus far has been notable for the brevity of the discussion about it—the soundbites that have created the impression that the sum of the debate facing the nation is whether or not to mandate coverage and whether 15 million people will go without coverage if Barack Obama is elected.
“Journalism is following what the candidates are saying, but the candidates are not saying a whole lot of specifics about their plans or why they’re moving in the direction they’re going,” Ms. Lieberman added. “The public knows it’s an important issue. They know about universal health care, an often misused buzz word; they might know about the mandate versus no mandate. But beyond that, they don’t know much, and the candidates haven’t gone out of their way to explain all this.”
In a debate that devoted 16 minutes to health care, she said, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama “tossed out bits of explanation that, if glued together, might form the nucleus of the syllabus they need to get the public on board.” But then, she said, the candidates returned to their “familiar quarrel over mandates,” and that’s what the press reported on.
On the Surface
Ms. Lieberman is not alone in faulting the candidates for what many perceive as a superficial discussion on the complex issue of health care reform. “Obama and Clinton’s policies are different, but they haven’t been outlined clearly enough,” said Peggy Pico, medical reporter for NBC affiliate KNSD-TV in San Diego.
Although the candidates bear responsibility for not educating the public, some media experts also fault the stations for not taking the story of dueling health care policies to a deeper, more informative level.
“The elections are a great opportunity for health care journalists, but I don’t think enough of them are taking advantage of it,” said independent health care journalist Andrew Holtz, who writes the online Holtz Report. “There is so little coverage of public policy at the local TV stations and health care reform gets very little coverage vis-à-vis its importance. That’s not to say it isn’t covered, but they do a soundbite.”
Health care policy isn’t a natural topic for TV coverage. The complicated topic doesn’t fit into TV’s short reports, and the visuals that might illustrate the story are not obvious. But Gary Schwitzer, director of the health journalism master’s program at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, doesn’t buy that.
“They’ll tell you they don’t have time to get into issues, but in sweeps it’s not impossible to find stories that run six minutes,” he said. “Give me six minutes and I can tell you a lot about a candidate’s health care policy platform. I understand the limitations of the medium, but I don’t see them saying, “We can’t go into detail [on air], but find it on our Web site.’”
Mr. Holtz noted many states are enacting health care reform instead of waiting for federal legislation. “Local stations have a responsibility to cover what their states are doing,” said Mr. Holtz. “Just yesterday I was in downtown Portland, Ore., running back and forth between two big health care policy meetings. One had 200 people talking about health care reform issues with representatives from all over the community, really trying to get a handle on this. And there weren’t any cameras there.”
In contrast, TelevisionWeek spoke to several medical reporters who are covering the topic and plan to follow it throughout the election cycle. “Health care policy is probably my favorite topic,” said Debby Knox, medical reporter at WISH-TV in Indianapolis. “I’m glad that there seems to be some momentum [during election season]. I’ve heard so many horror stories over the years, I’m glad to give a lot of coverage to it. Our primary is in May, so we’ll do more as the national election heats up.”
At San Diego’s KNSD, Ms. Pico said she is “absolutely covering health care policies.”
“We have a half-hour political show once a week, with political reporter Gene Cubbison, and I go on the show and discuss policy,” the medical reporter said. “This is a huge trend. People didn’t used to care about public policy having to do with health, but they do now. Baby boomers have parents stuck in the donut hole of Medicare, or they have kids and choose jobs based on the health care coverage offered.
“We have dedicated time and resources for the election season and have decided that health care policies will come up often,” Ms. Pico added.
Dr. Maria Simbra, medical reporter at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, noted the newsroom there is specialized. “I know health care policy will be discussed, but I believe much of that will fall to our political reporter, Jon Delano,” she said. “It would be good to do a tag-team on this. Jon and I have talked about this. With my background, I can talk about the practical matters of how the policies might work and he could cover the policy angle. But we’ll have to see what issues shake out here that motivate the voters.”
Although some health care journalists across the nation are covering issues of health care policy as it pertains to the election, Mr. Holtz, a former CNN reporter, believes that health care policy in general is not covered often enough. “It’s nothing new,” he said. “At CNN, it was tough to get coverage of health care policy, although in the early 1990s, we covered the Clinton proposals. But after that effort fell apart, there was a lot less coverage.
“It’s tough to do short stories [on health care policy], but if stations will commit to getting some of their journalists to really learn about these issues, they can cover them in a better way,” he said. “Every decent-sized market has a university with health care policy experts. Why don’t they go there and talk to them and adapt their coverage, and do it one bite at a time. It would be nice to see TV reporting try to take baby steps forward in grappling with some of the bigger issues.”

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