Health Care and Wikipedia

Wondering how to cover health care debates? Get thee to a wiki.

Here are some things the media are generally incapable of resisting:

- conflict

- drama

- innuendo

- Sarah Palin

Given that, it is little surprise that the supremely unfortunate “death panels” narrative has proven irresistible to reporters. Conflict and drama and innuendo, all courtesy of Sarah Palin! So: moths/flame! Peanut butter/jelly! Bruce Wayne/bat signal! Et cetera! Off went the press. And with them, it seems, our collective sanity.

And, of course: the fluffy little rom-com that is When Sarah Met Facebook ends—spoiler alert!—with end-of-life care being taken off the table. Making the plot of the whole thing not so much a comedy—not so much, even, a tragedy—as a complete farce. Of debate, and of the media that are meant to guide us in it.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize with those media—to some extent. As we’ve noted before, the ‘death panel’ narrative—and its many, many counterparts in recent Ridiculous Rumorship—are notoriously challenging for the press to deal with. The legacy media are no longer the only message machines out there, which means that the old turn-the-other-cheek strategy—their erstwhile method of delegitimization—is no longer viable. And debunking rumors without simultaneously sanctioning them has always been a fraught endeavor, with the proliferation of niche media sites over the past several years only rendering that effort even more precarious.

However. One thing has become clear in the otherwise messy tangle of tempers and rumors and lies in which the health care debate has largely lost itself: There has to be a better way to do things. Because, of course, the “death panel” fiasco is merely the latest in a long string of dishonest/inane/distracting/shameful sideshows to infect the national discussion.

One information source that has shone during this otherwise dark hour for the media: Wikipedia. Yep: Wikipedia. Check out the crowdsourced encyclopedia’s entry on “Health Care Reform in the United States,” and you will find nearly 9,000 words on that complicated and urgent topic, neatly broken down by subtopic. These include: “Costs,” “Comparisons with Other Health Care Systems,” “History of Reform Efforts,” “Barriers to Reform,” “Public Policy Debates” (this entry broken down, in turn, according to “Common arguments for and against a national health care system”), and “Current reform proposals.” You will also find: suggestions for further reading, listed and linked; an “External links” section with a roundup of more than thirty sites of health care-related government efforts, media outlets, and advocacy groups, from both sides of the aisle; and a breakdown of health care-related legislation.

Oh, and: you will also find nearly 200 (current number: 190) linked citations and references, so that you can source the information provided in the entry and extend your reading. You can also, should you be inclined, check out the History and Discussion tabs of the entry—allowing you to examine, respectively, the genesis of and the community discussion about the entry.

Wikipedia provides, essentially, what traditional news outlets, both in print and online, have been trying—with varying degrees of success—to create: a thorough, comprehensive, and vitriol-free examination of the health care conversation. One that defers to information rather than sideshows. To browse the “Health Care Reform in the United States” entry—or, for that matter, the related-but-distinct “Health Care in the United States,” “Single-payer health care,” or “Health care industry” entries—is to come away with a fact-based, drama-free sense of what the debate is all about. The entries’ easily searchable, and link-filled, layout empowers the user to find the information he or she is looking for—while the it’s-all-on-a-single-page aspect of that same layout encourages comprehensive cognition and, yes, serendipity.

And, significantly: missing from the discussion is talk of Sarah Palin and her fictional-fantastical “death panels.” Missing are the YouTube-tastic sideshows that the mainstream media—again, both traditional and digital—have found so irresistible in covering the health care debates. Missing, in general, are the frustrating and distracting little dramas that, overall, have taxed attention, promoted misinformation, and stifled true conversation.

Indeed, what Wikipedia provides, ultimately, is information, pure and simple. And, perhaps just as significantly, it provides the implicit assumption that ‘information, pure and simple’ is enough. An encyclopedia entry has no mandate for a ‘colorful lede.’ It has no instinct for conflict. It assumes its audience’s attention, rather than feeling compelled to earn it, painstakingly—word by dramatic word.

And, because Wikipedia is crowdsourced, it has no implicit mandate, ethical or economical, toward ‘balance’ and ‘objectivity.’ It thus has no vested interest in the kind of he said/she said approach that has, to this point, so sorely compromised the mainstream media’s health care narrative.

“You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air,” Rick Perlstine pointed out in Sunday’s Washington Post.

The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist”—out of bounds.

We may just have a contemporary version of that “more confident media”—one that has, in its sober respect for fact itself, the ability to take us back to the future. Media outlets, take note.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.