06/25/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Media Mostly Covered The Politics Of Health Care Reform, Which Is Probably Why No One Knows What The Law Does

Last week, Alec MacGillis published his must-read report on his travels to Sewanee, Tenn., where he visited a clinic staged by Remote Area Medical, "a Knoxville-based organization that for two decades has been providing free medical, dental and vision care in underserved areas." There, he encountered an unusual phenomenon -- lots of people at the ragged end of the health care system who didn't know that there was this law called the Affordable Care Act that contained a multitude of benefits that applied to them:

As Robin Layman, a mother of two who has major health troubles but no insurance, arrived at a free clinic here, she had a big personal stake in the Supreme Court's imminent decision on the new national health care law.

Not that she realized that. "What new law?" she said. "I've not heard anything about that."

It's almost as if the bulk of the press coverage that the Affordable Care Act received focused on the politics of the bill rather than the substance of the legislation. But hey, this is just my impression. Let's see what the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has to say:

When it was a major story, however, most of the coverage focused on the politics of the bill rather than the substance of the legislation.

Oh, hey! How about that? If you watch and read the news, according to Pew, you'll learn that health care reform, like unemployment, is mainly something that impacts the electoral hopes of affluent politicians.

As is its wont, Pew released a graph that should finally make this clear:


Pew also analyzed the language used in the media, and found it "reveals that opponents of the reform won the so-called 'messaging war' in the coverage." This isn't altogether surprising. What remains sort of sad is that everyone would rather cover a "messaging war" than a nationwide health care crisis. One thing that the average citizen doesn't learn in coverage of a "messaging war" is information that has relevance to the lives of ordinary people.

In MacGillis' piece, we meet Terry Bailey, a Remote Area Medical clinic attendee who used to have employer-based coverage until it became unaffordable, leaving him uncovered when he experienced a knee injury. He was precisely the sort of person who could have used some basic information about the Affordable Care Act:

Under the law, Bailey could opt out of his employer's coverage if it costs more than 9.5 percent of his income - which it now does. In that case, he would receive subsidies to buy private coverage on his own and his employer would be assessed a $3,000 penalty. He said he could live with the insurance mandate, given the subsidies, which he hadn’t realized would apply to him before a reporter described the law. "As long as you get help, it ain't that bad" of an idea, Bailey said. "If you don't [have a mandate], you're going to have freeloaders."

We should maybe hire a bunch of these "reporters" and, I don't know, create some nation-wide infrastructure that they could use to disseminate factual information about these laws to ordinary citizens, using the television or the internet or something? This is just an idea I had.

What Americans Learned From The Media About The Health Care Debate [Pew Research]
'What New Law?' [The New Republic]

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