Accuracy in Truth Squading

KTRK-TV's truth meter needs recalibration

Truth squading is catching on. All over the country media outlets have latched onto truth squad features, which examine the political ads and reveal what’s wrong with them. Audiences love them, and why not? What’s better than your local paper or TV station trapping some politician in a half-truth, misrepresentation, or outright lie? Just one problem: truth-squad stories are not so easy to do. It’s hard to dissect advertising language that’s been skillfully packaged; reporters don’t always know the nuances of the issues, health or otherwise, and space and air time to explain complicated proposals are limited. It’s not surprising that truth squads sometimes miss the mark.

ABC13 Eyewitness News, aka KTRK-TV in Houston, missed last Tuesday when it tried to analyze ads aired by Clinton and Obama in advance of the Texas primary. Judging by CJR’s own truth meter, the station was less than truthful about what it told its viewers and left misleading impressions of the candidates’ plans.

Political Ad: She fought for universal health care.

KTRK’s comment: Clinton does get specific in one ad on health care policy.

Political Ad: She’s the only candidate with a plan to provide health care for every American.

KTRK’s comment: It’s true Sen. Clinton has a plan that would provide health care insurance for every American. In her plan it’s a mandate, you would have to buy health insurance if you don’t currently have any. You could keep the coverage you have now if you like it better. It’s not so true though to say she’s the only candidate to do that. Her Democratic opponent, Barack Obama has a plan too. Although in his, he would subsidize costs to make them cheaper in the hope more people would buy it.

Okay KTRK, here are our comments: It is true that only Clinton’s plan could cover everyone with an individual mandate, or try to. Her belief is that mandates are the only way that a market-based health care system, which both candidates are promoting, can bring enough people into the insurance pool to make carriers want to cover everyone and spread the risks and the costs. And she is likely right that you can’t do that without a mandate.

The station implied incorrectly that Obama’s plan does the same basic thing. It doesn’t. Obama’s plan does not—repeat, does not—bring everyone into the risk pool. It does not cover everyone. He calls for a mandate, but only for kids. He is not proposing a mechanism to bring the rest of the population into the pool. People don’t have to buy insurance under Obama’s plan, but he believes that they will—if the price is low enough. He aims to make insurance cheaper, although it’s not clear how his proposed remedies would do that.

But rather than explain that difference and the complexities of risk selection—the principle that makes insurance companies tick—KTRK picked up another point in Obama’s campaign literature and left viewers with a half-truth. It is true, as the station says, that Obama would subsidize costs to help people buy insurance. But plans proposed by both Clinton and McCain also call for tax credits and subsidies to help people buy coverage, a fact that indicates the candidates are looking at some of the same options. Perhaps all these misleading impressions can be chalked up to the constraints of television, but viewers deserve better.

Our advice to the media: Get this truth squad business right, or don’t do it at all. The public expects sound bites from the candidates. It needs something more from the media.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.