Journalists Grade Themselves on Health-Care Coverage

That was one killer, 14-month test

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After more than a year of relentless political and legislative battles, most journalists are overjoyed to take a break from health care reform. Even enthusiastic policy wonk Ezra Klein announced that he would be taking a break from blogging (to much tongue-in-cheek speculation by the blogosphere).

Now that they can take a breath, journalists are stepping back to grade themselves. How did they do? Very well, according to Harold Pollack at The New Republic who calls health care "the best covered news story ever." He's partly responding to an episode of On the Media that lamented the "the low quality of press coverage" during the battle for health care reform. "It's certainly easy to find examples of shoddy journalism and public ignorance to bolster this charge," says  Pollack, pointing fingers at the Wall Street Journal and Fox News. "Because it is so easy to find bad reporting and public stupidity, it is easy to overlook something. Press coverage of health care reform was the most careful, most thorough, and most effective reporting of any major story, ever."

Other journalists, of course, have less sunny views of their work. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and Trudy Lieberman of the Columbia Journalism Review give less-than-perfect grades to coverage of the health-care saga.
  • Good and Bad, Given the Circumstances  Weeks before, Howard Kurtz argued health care reform was simply too large and complex a story to cover perfectly. "In the end, the subject may simply have been too dense for the media to fully digest," wrote Kurtz "If you're a high-information person who routinely plows through 2,000-word newspaper articles, you had a reasonably good grasp of the arguments. For a busy electrician who plugs in and out of the news, the jousting and the jargon may have seemed bewildering. Once the law takes effect -- its provisions stretched out over years -- perhaps journalists can help separate rhetoric from reality." Kurtz also chides journalists for becoming consumed by political process and Beltway politics, and marginalizing town hall anger as a "spectacle" instead of taking Tea Party enthusiasts and deficit hawks seriously
  • Bad, and You Know It  At True/Slant, Allison Kilkenny argues "not even Pollack himself seems to really believe" the premise that health care is "the best-covered news story, ever." She points to the Wall Street Journal and Fox New's widespread influence as proof of the larger structural problems in reporting on health care reform. "He’s absolutely correct that these forums engaged in shoddy journalism," writes Kilkenny, "but their low-quality gutter-dredging techniques successfully brainwashed millions of readers and viewers." Good journalism has nothing to do with the amount of information made available, she argues, but whether that information is read and taken seriously: "Yes, it’s very cool that people could read the healthcare bill online, but how many Americans actually did that? We’ll probably never know, but it seems likely that far more people tuned in for Fox 'death panel' propaganda than sat down to read the healthcare bill."
  • An 'A' For Effort At the American Prospect, Paul Waldman seconds the idea that journalists deserve credit for trying: 
And it's fair to say that the most important news organizations -- the network newscasts, the key newspapers, the newsmagazines -- can at least be said to have made a good-faith effort to inform the public as best they could. Some did a better job than others, and some fell prey to the same weaknesses that characterize their coverage of any issue ("Look, people shouting -- let's go see what they're saying!"), but overall they offered the public the information they needed to make an informed decision, in amounts so vast that no thirst for wonkery could go unsated.
  • 'Incoherent Coverage'--We Weren't Prepared  Writing around the same time as Kurtz for the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman deems the coverage of health care reform "largely incoherent to the man on the street." Lieberman doesn't pull any punches, writing that "media coverage failed to illuminate the crucial issues, quoted special interest groups and politicians without giving consumers enough information to judge if their claims were fact or fiction, did not dig deeply into the pros and cons of the proposals, and gave tons of ink and air time to the same handful of sources." Despite her criticisms, Lieberman takes the debate beyond her colleagues by offering a potential solution in a new breed of journalism, "a thorough analysis of the issue at hand, but one that was grounded in deep reporting, not lightly informed opinion." Looking to the late Johnny Apple's work for the The New York Times for inspiration, Lieberman concludes that adapting Apple's emphasis on rigorous reporting for the rapid-fire Web environment is the best solution. "Short shouldn’t have to mean shallow," concludes Lieberman.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.