The Real Media Failure on Obamacare (and No, It's Not CNN or Fox)

Why are newspapers only informing their readers about how the health-care law affects them now, two years after it was passed?

Newseum via Poynter

CNN and Fox News have rightly come in for jeers after their spectacular misreporting of the Supreme Court's health-care ruling Thursday. Megan Garber has a great piece on what happened, linking it to the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline. But while that's an embarrassing failure, the press has committed a far greater sin in covering the health-care law. We have failed to inform the American public about the law. And while CNN and Fox corrected their reports quickly, there's still too little information about the law, more than two years after it was enacted.

Take a look through Poynter's very helpful roundup of front pages with news on the Supreme Court ruling. Once you get past the excellent woods from the Big Apple tabloids ("SAY ARRRGH!" in the conservative Post, "TO YOUR HEALTH!" in the more liberal Daily News), a striking pattern emerges in the headlines. As an exemplar, I've included a detail from the Parsippany, N.J. Daily Record above, where the lead headline was "What the healthcare law means to you." I don't mean to pick on the Daily Record. AM New York, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger, the Des Moines Register, and the Youngstown Vindicator all ran similar headlines.

Wasn't that sort of an important story before the ruling, too?

Polls have repeatedly shown that Americans hold incorrect, contradictory, or downright nonsensical ideas about what the law does and doesn't do. Alec MacGillis and others have talked to the people who stand to be most affected by the law and found that they have no idea about it.

While the ACA is obviously complicated, many people have blamed President Obama for failing to adequately "sell" the law, either as policy or politics, and suggested that he now has a second change. Some of that blame is deserved. But the press has also done too little to communicate what the law does and how it works, as the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism demonstrated devastatingly last week. Like Obama, the press gets a mulligan. They better take it. (If you're looking to learn more about the law, this summary from the Kaiser Family Foundation is a good place to start.)

Read The Atlantic's full coverage of the Supreme Court's health-care decision.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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