Everyone, it seems, is trying to take the pulse of the electorate—Americans who, as the saying goes, vote with their feet and may well decide the fate of this effort to change the American way of health care. The pollsters, the wordsmiths, the PR firms, and the stealth groups have been out in full force, trying to influence the hearts and minds of people turning out at town hall meetings. All this leaves reporters in a pickle, though: How do they know what people really think? So we at Campaign Desk decided to use that age-old reporting tool—the man-on-the-street interview—and set out to look at what men and women we met have to say about health reform. The series is archived here.

We have come to believe that the entire debate, its complexity and its nuances, has been taking place 30,000 feet above the heads of people in whose name the reform battle is being waged. Our interviews confirmed that observation. Of course, our results are not scientific, but we think they offer some pretty good clues to the way ordinary Americans are thinking. Too many people we met are not engaged, have heard lots of wrong information, and have no idea what reform means to them.

Columbia, Missouri, a typical college town, is almost smack in the middle of America. What better way of listening to ordinary people, we thought, than to talk to shopkeepers on Main Street; students around the Missouri campus, who will soon have to buy their own insurance; and patients at a community clinic, who have a big dog in this fight. Columbia has a reputation for being a blue oasis in the middle of a very red state, yet we found people skeptical of the president’s ability to produce health reform and unaware of what reform would mean for them. Some people I met had tried to follow the debate, but recently lost interest and just tuned out; they were people who once supported reform.

I began my interviews at the Family Health Center, which offers primary care, dental, and mental health services to patients with low incomes. That afternoon, a steady stream of patients and caregivers came in and out of the large, well-kept waiting room with furnishings provided by the local Rotary Club.

Kathy, who wouldn’t give her last name, was waiting for a hearing-impaired patient who would need Kathy’s translation skills during the medical exam. The patient didn’t show up, and Kathy had time to chat. She indicated she had some notion of what the debate is about but confessed, “I don’t understand what plans are on the table. I don’t think it’s worth the emotional and mental energy on something that’s not on the table. I’d like to know what’s going on, but I am not going to base my opinion on unsubstantiated sound bites from the media.” She had heard of a public plan and offered this assessment: “We need to be careful in crafting another government-run system.”

Kathy, forty-one, owns a small business—the kind that struggles to pay for health coverage for its workers. The sixteen people she employs to provide interpretation services work part time. Some are uninsured, and others have coverage through a spouse. “I have no idea how it (reform) would affect me as a business owner,” she said. “I hope it would provide a resource. I really don’t have much of a buffer between the price of our services and my payroll. I don’t know if it will be an opportunity for my employees to have insurance.”

Rose Shepherd, seventy-three, was waiting for her disabled adult daughter, who is a clinic patient. She didn’t know much about reform, either. What did she want to know? “I kind of want to know what the end result is,” she told me. “I’m afraid that people who have more are so afraid that those who have less will get some of their more.”

Personally, Shepherd was worried about Medicare, and hoped reform would mean that Medicare would cover more things so she didn’t have to work full time selling jewelry at Wal-Mart. I work there for health care, she says. Last year, Shepherd and her husband paid $2500 out of pocket for medical care, in addition to the $230 per month for their Blue Cross Advantage policies. Their combined Social Security income is about $1600 per month, so health care eats a big chunk.

Our conversation returned to what particulars about reform she might be interested in. “Who could I really trust to tell me?” she asked. Should the media tell you more, I probed. “God no,” she replied. “It’s all sensationalism. You can’t believe what you hear.” She didn’t watch much TV, she said, although she made an exception for PBS and Dancing with the Stars.

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.