WV’s Register-Herald Shows The Right Way To Report On The Impact Of Obamacare Repeal

While much of the media coverage of the debate over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has missed the boat, West Virginia’s Register-Herald published an in-depth article on the implications of the repeal of the health law, providing a model of the best practices all other media outlets should emulate moving forward.

Media coverage of the future of the ACA thus far has largely failed to inform the public about the negative impacts of repeal. A Media Matters study of pre-election coverage showed that broadcast and cable news reporters largely failed to ask substantive questions about what a replacement plan from President Donald Trump’s administration might look like, despite his repeated pledges to “repeal and replace” the ACA. Outlets repeatedly wrote articles with headlines that uncritically repeated Trump’s false statements on the ACA, while others have failed to aggressively fact-check Republican politicians who spread misinformation about the law. Media Matters studies of state newspaper coverage revealed severe flaws in local coverage as well, as the papers largely failed to report the potential impact of repeal on vulnerable communities like women, minority, and low-income areas.

West Virginia’s Register-Herald broke this trend with its recent reporting on the ACA, illustrating the best practices other outlets should follow in their coverage of the law’s future.

1. Discuss The Substantive Impact Of Repeal And Impact Of Potential Replacement Plans

The January 26 article outlined the specific impacts repealing the law would have on West Virginia and the nation as a whole and detailed how a repeal would negatively affect the uninsured rate, the state’s budget, consumer protections, and Medicaid:

[N]ot only 184,000 West Virginians would lose health insurance, but the state's weak economy could falter with the loss of billions of dollars of federal funds.

An estimated 16,000 jobs would be lost by 2019 and nearly $350 million would be lost in tax revenue over five years. The Urban Institute estimates West Virginia would lose $14 billion in federal funds between 2019-2028, including $12 billion supporting Medicaid/CHIP.

Another study conducted by WalletHub shows West Virginia will be the state second most impacted in the nation by the repeal.

“The ACA is much more than a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who have gained health coverage and important patient protections,” said WVCBP Executive Director Ted Boettner, who authored the report. “It has been a billion dollar investment in our people that has lead to thousands of new jobs during a time when our state's communities are struggling.”

The article also discussed potential policies that have been proposed as a part of a replacement package and the impact those policies would have on the state of health care, like the Republican-backed proposal to convert Medicaid to block grants, which could have significant negative consequences for recipients. This substantive discussion of the impact of potential plans to repeal and replace the ACA transcends the typical media focus on sound bites, providing an essential step toward more productive overall coverage of a complex policy area.

2. Cite Experts, Not Pundits

The article cited numerous experts, like the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and studies from major medical journals like The New England Journal of Medicine, instead of political pundits, to explain the debate. This increases the quality of coverage because it means the focus of the interview or article revolves around a substantive discussion of the policies in question, rather than the political optics that pundits prefer to discuss. This is particularly important when discussing confusing policies like health care, where misinformation or political spin can permeate public conceptions about complex issues.

3. Put A Human Face On The Impact of Repeal

The Register-Herald paired its substantive policy discussion with interviews with West Virginia residents who would be directly affected by repealing the ACA to present the human impact of the health care debate:

Zachary was 23 years old when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer — a rare diagnosis for a young man. He's had multiple surgeries along with radioactive iodine ablation treatment, but each summer for the past three years, his cancer has returned.

Zachary, now 26 years old, fears he will not be able to utilize the final months of his health coverage under his parents' plan if the ACA is repealed.

“He's scared out of his mind,” Vaughan-Meadors said. “He thinks he's going to get dropped tomorrow. We understand as adults it doesn't happen that quickly, but as a young person, you don't cope well with cancer to begin with.”

Using personal testimonies humanizes the discussion of the ACA and puts a face on the impact of the repeal in a way the repetition of insurance statistics cannot. While human interest pieces should not crowd out detailed policy reporting, The Register-Herald shows it is possible to succeed in doing both.