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Why Media's Health Care Reform Coverage Was Even Worse Than You Thought

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With the United States Supreme Court set to rule on the constitutionality of the Obama administration's 2010 health care reform law, it's worth noting the media coverage at the time of the debate dramatically favored Republican opponents of the bill. The Pew Research Center recently reminded us of that fact when it highlighted the findings of a comprehensive survey they conducted from June 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010.

But it turns out the Pew study likely downplayed just how dramatically media outlets aided and amplified Republican attacks on health care reform, even though Republicans were on the losing side of that legislative showdown. (Since when do losers get to write the history?)

That's because the Pew study didn't effectively capture the run-away misinformation and ceaseless health care reform attacks that flowed from Fox News during the debate.

The study assessed the extent to which certain terms associated with support for and opposition to health care reform found their way into media coverage of the debate. According to Pew's results, "concepts used by opponents were nearly twice as common as those used by supporters."

From the Pew study:

Terms that were closely associated with opposition arguments, such as "government run," were far more present in media reports than terms associated with arguments supporting the bill, such as "pre-existing conditions."

Pew also noted that most of the coverage focused on the politics of the bill, not the substance of the landmark legislation. "Boiled down to its essence," the study concluded, "the opponents' attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters' attack on greedy insurance firms."

Basically, the news coverage of the health care debate as provided by the "liberal media" represented a godsend to the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement. The coverage was stacked overwhelmingly in their favor in terms of the volume of GOP talking points stressed in the coverage.

In addition, the media obsessed over the legislative process and the political implications of the bill (49 percent of the coverage), while paying far less attention to how the reform legislation would affect Americans (23 percent), or why reform was even needed. In other words, how the U.S. health care system functions today (which accounted for just nine percent of the coverage).

Or, as Pew put it, "only 9% percent of the overall health care coverage was devoted to the current state of an industry that consumes one-sixth of the U.S. gross domestic product and affects virtually every citizen."

On cable news, just four percent of the health care coverage detailed the workings of the troubled U.S. system.

Amazing.

The net results from the skewed coverage? Less than 20 percent of Americans say they have a clear understanding of what's actually in the health care law.

Back to the huge imbalance in terms of the health care rhetoric: The study singled out the three most popular pro-reform arguments and the three most popular anti-reform arguments and then tallied up the media results:

Opponents
More government involvement -- 8,837
More taxes with healthcare reform -- 6,720
Rationing healthcare -- 2,624

Supporters
More competition -- 6,662
Insuring pre-existing conditions -- 3,662
Greedy insurance industry -- 559

But here's why the coverage was even worse than you thought: Through no fault of Pew's research, a quantitative assessment like this doesn't capture the over-the-top nature of conservative media's -- led by Fox News, as always -- all-consuming campaign to discredit reform. And it fails to reflect the openly aggressive activist role Fox played.

The Pew study only sampled a small portion of cable news coverage, and its results can't possibly convey just how egregious the attacks on reform were from Fox's primetime opinion shows.

For instance, here's Bill O'Reilly claiming reform would "require American taxpayers to fund abortion," denying Fox talkers said people who didn't buy health insurance would be sent to prison, and complaining that reform would drive him into the "poorhouse."

And here's Sean Hannity claiming Democrats "ended up cheating" in order to pass reform legislation and that two Congressmen were "bribed." Here he is insisting a "universal nightmare looms" once reform is passed, and announcing along with Sarah Palin that health care legislation was "un-American."

All of that without even mentioning the shows Pew didn't look at for their study, like Glenn Beck's Fox News program, which was a nightly avalanche of fearmongering over health care reform. Beck once declared health care reform to be "raping the pocketbooks of the rich to give to the poor" and compared the bill's place in history to Pearl Harbor and the Hindenburg (among other historical tragedies).

So yes, the press did everything Republicans could have asked for during the health care debate. And yes, the coverage was actually worse than you thought.

Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters for America blog.