Study Confirms Fox Used GOP-Friendly Language To Try To Stop Health Care Reform

A new study confirms that Fox News consistently used slanted language when covering the debate over health care reform. Unlike other networks, Fox used language mirroring GOP-friendly phrases promoted by conservative messaging guru Frank Luntz more often than they did neutral descriptors.

In May of 2009, conservative pollster Frank Luntz released a memo, “The Language of Healthcare 2009: The 10 Rules for Stopping the 'Washington Takeover' of Healthcare.” In that memo, Luntz advised conservatives to use phrases like “rationing,” “Washington takeover,” “government run,” “government takeover,” and “bailout” when addressing health care reform.

In The “Luntzification” of the U.S. Health Care Debate, Mark D. Harmon of the University of Tennessee's College of Communication and Information shows the extent to which Luntz's GOP-friendly language permeated news coverage of health care reform. 

Harmon reviewed transcripts from the six major cable and broadcast networks for uses of“sixteen Luntz terms” - such as “rationing,” “bureaucrat,” “Washington takeover,” “government takeover” - and “16 more neutral terms describing” health care reform, including “pre-existing conditions,” “lifetime limits,” “profits,” “insurance exchange,” “patient protection” and “affordable care.” He found that Luntz terms outnumbered neutral terms on Fox News, and also made up “a significant percentage” of the terms used on CNN, MSNBC and on the nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC.

The research found that Luntz language was used 1,521 times on Fox while neutral language was used 1,122 times on the network. On the other networks, Luntz's language was used 4,022 times and neutral language invoked 6,323 times. The study surveyed the networks in three time periods: June 13, 2008 to May 6, 2009 (before the Luntz memo was released), May 7, 2009 to March 3, 2010 (from the memo's release to President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act into law), and from March 31, 2010 to February 20, 2011. 

In his research, Harmon used a LexisNexis search of television news transcripts, which in the case of Fox News only covers prime time and not daytime programming.

It's not surprising that Fox would favor language that favored the GOP. Around the same time of the Luntz memo, Fox News' controversial Washington managing editor Bill Sammon used an internal email to instruct Fox personalities to use the phrase “government option” in reference to the public insurance option that was a part of the Senate health care bill.

In an interview with Media Matters, Harmon said, “We see the Luntz terms still being used in the shutdown of the government and we see people on the street who presumably get most of their news from Fox News not understanding even the basics of the Affordable Care Act or that it is really the same thing as Obamacare.”

“My guess is you get a mushy public understanding of what's really going on,” he added. “The effect of that is that public policy is harmed if the public cannot weigh in intelligently on what is being proposed and what is actually happening, we get this world of dueling sound bites in which the Luntz words are just one major player.”

In addition to adopting GOP-friendly language, Fox News has spent years campaigning against health care form with a steady stream of misinformation and fearmongering.