Mainstream Media Malpractice

The presidential election was just beginning in earnest at this time last year, and voters told pollsters that they believed health care was the second-most important issue facing the country. Three-quarters of the voters questioned said that the next president would need to do something serious to address skyrocketing health care costs. And it’s no wonder.

Americans spent $2.4 trillion on health care in 2007, or $7,900 per person. That’s 17 percent of our gross domestic product. What’s more, health care costs are increasing at a predicted rate of nearly 7 percent, or twice the rate of inflation.

So how much weight does the mainstream media give to this pressing economic issue that Americans regard as extremely important? About as much as it gives to tornadoes, crimes, or accidents, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

PEJ recently released a comprehensive study of how the media covered health and health policy in 2007 and 2008. Over an 18-month time period, PEJ examined small, medium, and large market newspapers; network TV morning and evening news programs; cable television news; news and talk radio; and online news to see how much health coverage there was and what topics were addressed.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Health news was only the 8th biggest subject in the national news, comprising 3.6 percent of all coverage—much less than crime and natural disaster reporting.
  • Cable news in particular found very little room for health news, offering just 1.4 percent of its coverage to the topic.
  • Health was not a dominant part of the 2008 primary campaign coverage despite ongoing debates in government about the future of our health care system. Health coverage—whether focused on health policy or personal health issues—accounted for less than 1 percent (0.6 percent) of the campaign-related news in the study.

And let’s note that PEJ used a particularly generous definition that included all health news—from important debates over policy to any story about specific afflictions. The study found, for example, that network evening news gave their viewers the most health coverage, but that the networks’ coverage included a “heavy emphasis on specific ailments such as heart disease and cancer.”

In fact, segments on issues, specific diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease dominated almost half (41.7 percent) of the tiny percentage of national news coverage devoted to heath care. Public health issues such as food contamination, tainted vaccines, and binge drinking garnered the next most attention, accounting for nearly a third (30.9 percent) of all health coverage. News about health policy or the U.S. health care system came in third, with only 27.4 percent of the coverage.

The mainstream media’s decided lack of interest in the details of health care policy—the causes and solution to skyrocketing costs and rising uninsurance rates—also plagued presidential election coverage, making up just 1 percent of campaign-related news. PEJ found a peak in coverage during the fall of 2007 as Congress engaged the White House in a heated battle over an extension of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. And yet voters heard virtually nothing about the stark philosophical difference between Barack Obama and John McCain on the issue of health care; McCain favored an expanded private insurance market while Obama pushed primarily government solutions.

What the study did address is the quality of the health care coverage that the mainstream media provided—it too left much to be desired. About a year ago, we wrote a Think Again column identifying three essential failures of health media coverage: indulging politicians who claim, indefensibly, that the United States enjoys the world’s greatest health care system; failing to emphasize the sound economics behind government-provided health care and the shaky economics behind consumer-driven care; and neglecting overwhelming popular opinion in favor of government solutions to the health care crisis.

A cursory examination of the news coverage found during the period that PEJ conducted its study reveals several examples of continued failure on these point. For instance, we checked on how many times network news outlets mentioned the words “health care crisis” over the past two years, excluding when it was mentioned solely by a guest or interviewee.

ABC News mentioned it a grand total of once in 2008 and four times in 2007. One of those times was when Diane Sawyer was discussing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s universal health care plan for California. Said Sawyer: “[Schwarzenegger] has unveiled a bold new plan to give every person in California health insurance coverage. He says it will actually drive down costs. Other states are already joining in. So, is this a radical new solution or a budget buster?” The inherent biases against government care that we noted are on display here, as Sawyer’s framing presents two options: either the idea of actually insuring all Americans is “radical,” or it’s a “budget buster.”

For the record, NBC mentioned “health care crisis” twice in 2008 and not at all in 2007; CBS registered one mention in 2008 and four times in 2007. This is by no means a complete barometer of the quality of the health care media coverage, but it is an interesting sketch of the degree to which the problem is even being mentioned.

Mainstream media reporters’ bias toward government solutions to health care appeared most strongly during the heat of the presidential campaign. John McCain was predictably fond of tossing out misleading slurs such as “government-run health care” and “nationalized health-care system.” But so too were journalists willing to repeat them—John Harwood of the New York Times suggested that Obama and Hillary Clinton were proposing “government-run health care”; CNN was guilty of repeating “nationalization” repeatedly.

Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, and others eagerly repeated Rudy Giuliani’s false and ridiculous claim that when he had prostate cancer, his “chance of surviving … in the United States, 82 percent” but that his “chance of surviving prostate cancer in England, only 44 percent under socialized medicine.” They gave much wider latitude to this entirely false claim, made in service of allegedly terrific free-market health care, than many of their colleagues are willing grant even modest government health care initiatives such as Schwarzenegger’s.

As Congress and the new administration begin the difficult task of rationalizing this complicated and confusing system, Americans will be dependent on the media to help them navigate the various choices and tradeoffs that will ultimately be required. Will they get the information they need? Well, you can put lipstick on a pig…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and a columnist for The Nation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.