Health-Care Reform Not the 'Best-Covered' Story, But Not Bad Either

A great, thought-provoking Trudy Lieberman piece in the Columbia Journalism Review today on whether The New Republic's Harold Pollack is accurate in calling "Press coverage of health care reform … the most careful, most thorough, and most effective reporting of any major story, ever." Lieberman's basic point: while there has been a whole lot of reporting on health-care reform, it hasn't necessarily left Americans more informed. Which means that we, as reporters, have not done a particularly great job explaining what health-care reform does, how it works, and how various Americans will be affected. From Lieberman:

In numerous impromptu "town hall" interviews I conducted around the country, I found many people keenly interested in the health care debate. But they knew on some level that the media wasn't helping them out. I would hardly call any of them stupid. Many had simply been misinformed, like an Army reservist working at Starbucks who had heard Obama planned to take away her health insurance. Others had heard so many conflicting stories about health care, like the man in Columbia, Missouri who told me health reform is "just kind of fuzzy to everybody."

Lieberman goes on to conclude that "great journalism must do more than preach to the choir, and much of the coverage preached to the choir, especially the policy wonks angling for their next appearance on the News Hour."

As a reporter, I have spent a lot of time grappling with Lieberman's dilemma: how do you make a 2,400-page bill understandable and manageable for the general public? The newly passed law will affect millions of Americans in the coming decade, making the imperative to provide good, accurate, and easy-to-understand information incredibly strong.

But I have to take issue with a few of Lieberman's points, the first being her conclusion that "much of the coverage preached to the choir." A number of mass-market magazines—NEWSWEEK included—have taken the time to break down health-care reform and explain, situation by situation, what exactly the bill will mean. Time ran a cover just last week with the tagline "What Health Care Means for You." The New York Times has created an interactive graphic that explains how different individuals will be affected by the policy, and The Washington Post has a calculator where you can check out what your new premiums could cost. The preaching to the public has, in my view, been plentiful.

At the end of the day, health-care reform is an incredibly complicated law with a mind-boggling number of moving parts and industry-wide overhauls. Even if the Platonic ideal of "the health-care explanation" existed, it would be a challenging, complicated read. In other words, even the best explanations of anything from the individual mandate to affordability credits require grappling with and understanding some very complicated concepts and theories in health-care policy. There's only so far that good explanation, reporting, and writing can take you. The best-written story cannot change the fact that health-care reform is really, really complex.

Lieberman is 100 percent justified in calling out Pollack; we health reporters still have quite a way to go before we explain health-care reform in the best way possible to our readers. But to characterize the coverage as an inside-the-Beltway, wonk-tastic endeavor does not do justice to some of the very fine, very reader-oriented journalism produced by newspapers and magazines across the country over the past year—nor to the effort required to understand such a large, paradigm-shifting law.