Of course, any group has the right to lobby or organize as it sees fit. But the potential is enormous for voter confusion. The similar names, tactics, and buzz words deployed by both groups—likely shorthand for very different proposals—will boggle the mind of the average Joe. Journalists must explain who these groups are, identify their members, and illuminate what’s at stake for each of them. The “what’s at stake part” has so far been missing.

Neither The Columbus Dispatch nor the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which ran stories about AHIP’s listening tour, got to the nub of AHIP’s survival plan. The Dispatch story offered plenty of color—union members shaking water bottles filled with unpopped popcorn and Ohio residents airing their gripes about the health system. It quoted AHIP CEO Karen Ignani saying: “We plan to have a policy proposal and push for its enactment.” As I pointed out yesterday, AHIP’s web site offers plenty of clues about what it will push for, but the Dispatch story didn’t offer any of this information to readers.

The Plain Dealer did a bit better, but not much. It said that insurers want to build on the current system (whatever that means to the reader) and favor tax credits as the best way to extend coverage to the uninsured. Instead of delving deeper into what insurers specifically want, the article used six paragraphs for boilerplate explanations of the candidate’s proposals—and then blew it describing McCain’s. The PD quoted McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin as saying that Obama’s plan would, among other things, “encourage employers to cut workers’ coverage and put them on the government plan.” McCain would also encourage employers to cut coverage, but he would send workers to private insurers. Surely readers would like to know that.

There’s a war about to start, and the press should remember that, in war, the first casualty is truth.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and 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. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.