Media's ACA Coverage Continues To Ignore Positive Stories

New York Times article highlighted positive stories of people gaining coverage from the Affordable Care Act's exchanges -- a departure from the media's history of ignoring the law's success stories in favor of overwhelmingly negative coverage.

The media has overwhelmingly turned to negative anecdotal stories in covering the implementation of the ACA's exchanges. In The American Prospect, Paul Waldman argued that the media's tendency to use negative “exemplars” in health care coverage dramatically overemphasizes negative consequences of the law, often employing misleading reporting in order to manufacture “victims” of the law:

As the Affordable Care Act approaches full implementation, we're seeing a lot of exemplar stories, and I've been noticing one particular type: the story of the person who seems to be getting screwed. If it were true that most Americans were indeed being made worse off by the law, that would be a good thing; we'd learn their stories and get a sense of the human cost of the law. The trouble is that in the real world, there are many more people being helped by the law than hurt by it, and even those who claim to be hurt by it aren't being hurt at all.


Journalists have a natural inclination to cover bad news over good and to be skeptical of the government, which is usually healthy. But if you aren't careful it can also lead to misleading reporting. If you're going to do a story presenting one person as a victim of the law, it might be a good idea to make sure they are what you say they are.

Waldman cited a report from the NBC Nightly News as an example of how the media's coverage of health care consequences can be misleading. The segment highlighted a Los Angeles real estate agent whose premiums were higher after her insurer cancelled her plan and she looked for replacement coverage on the exchange. Waldman pointed out that the segment left out crucial context, such as whether she was eligible for subsidies and what level of coverage her current plan provided. A CBS News segment had similar problems, interviewing a woman named Dianne Barrette who lost her existing coverage and found replacement plans to be much more expensive. The Washington Post's Erik Wemple criticized the report, pointing out that Barrette's current plan was “a pray-that-you-don't-really-get-sick 'plan'” and “could well have bankrupted her.”

Fox News' Sean Hannity faced criticism after hosting three couples who professed to be “victims” of the health care law. After Eric Stern, a former senior adviser to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, contacted the three couples after the show aired, he found that none of them had actually been negatively impacted by the law or had even attempted to shop for coverage on the exchanges that they were complaining about:

First I spoke with Paul Cox of Leicester, N.C. He and his wife Michelle had lamented to Hannity that because of Obamacare, they can't grow their construction business and they have kept their employees below a certain number of hours, so that they are part-timers.

Obamacare has no effect on businesses with 49 employees or less. But in our brief conversation on the phone, Paul revealed that he has only four employees. Why the cutback on his workforce? “Well,” he said, “I haven't been forced to do so, it's just that I've chosen to do so. I have to deal with increased costs.” What costs? And how, I asked him, is any of it due to Obamacare? There was a long pause, after which he said he'd call me back. He never did.

But a December 9 New York Times article provided a rare example of a media outlet highlighting positive stories about the exchange's rollout. The article highlighted four stories of people who had been turned down for coverage or were having to make financial sacrifices to pay for insurance due to pre-existing conditions. A small business owner with leukemia discovered he was eligible for Medicaid, a San Francisco family with health problems found affordable coverage for the first time, a lawyer with pre-existing conditions found more comprehensive coverage for less money, and an Oregon breast-cancer patient is awaiting approval for an affordable plan after moving to the state and having been denied coverage before the exchange:

The rollout of the health care law has been plagued with problems so deep that even some of its strongest supporters have soured on its potential. The bottlenecks in the federal online insurance exchange, which serves 36 states; the cancellation of hundreds of thousands of policies that did not comply with the minimum requirements of the new law; and the high price of some plans sold through both federal and state-run exchanges have all cast a pall over President Obama's efforts to win support for the law.

But for all those problems, people are enrolling. More than 243,000 have signed up for private coverage through the exchanges, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and more than 567,000 have been determined eligible for Medicaid since the exchanges opened on Oct. 1. For many, particularly people with existing medical conditions like Mr. Acosta, the coverage is proving less expensive than what they had. Many others are getting health insurance for the first time in years, giving them alternatives to seeking care through free clinics or emergency rooms -- or putting it off indefinitely.

The ACA's website is reportedly improving, allowing thousands more to access plans over the exchange. As enrollment surges, the media will have ample opportunity to balance the one-sided, negative coverage of the law's effects.

(Flickr image via southerntabitha)