Media Coverage of Healthcare Reform

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Pew has done a study (here) that looks at media coverage of healthcare reform, and the good news is that there was a lot of coverage of healthcare reform. Some of it was even substantive. But Igor Volsky isn’t impressed:

Health coverage in the far more influential mainstream press did very little to serve the public interest and as the debate progressed, Americans became more, not less, confused about the policy. “A solid majority of Americans consistently said the health care debate was hard to understand — a number that increased from 63% in July 2009 to 69% in December 2009, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People & Press.”

Actually, it’s pretty natural that people would become more confused as time goes by no matter how good or bad the coverage was. Hell, I was more confused as time went by. Proposals come and go, amendments are offered and rejected, negotiation sessions drag on, studies are issued, and as the broad outlines take shape small details become ever more important. But there’s more to it than that, as another part of the Pew study demonstrates:

To a great extent, the health care debate was a talk show story, getting the most attention from the ideological cable and radio hosts.

….In the talk show sector, the subject was more than twice as big as it was in the media overall, filling 31% of the airtime from June 2009 through March 2010 versus 14% generally. On those shows, no other subject was deemed nearly as newsworthy. The No. 2 talk story in that time frame was the economy, all the way back at 7%.

….A month-by-month breakdown of health care coverage in the talk show sector reveals a major increase during the dog days of summer. In August, when the town hall protests exploded, 60% of all the talk show airtime was devoted to health care. (The second-biggest talk show topic, terrorism, was at 5% that month). In September, health care filled 39% of their airtime, and in October, it was still high at 30%.

This was true of both liberal and conservative talk shows, but of course conservative talks shows generally dwarf their liberal counterparts in audience size. And the study concludes that conservative talkers were far more successful at spreading their memes than the liberals were — though frankly, I’m surprised that liberals were as successful as they were. And I’m very surprised that the “rationing” meme was as muted as it was. I would have figured that for the #1 spot, to be honest.

In any case, my guess is that any issue that’s heavy talk show fodder is almost bound to produce poor coverage in the mainstream media. Like it or not, talk shows generate talking points and talking points drive politics. And the mainstream media covers politics. This is just the world we live in.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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