Health Care: Passing Along the Confusion

The Times unclarifies

It was one of those stories—“Heath Care is a Big Concern for Nevada”—that made clear that Nevada voters care about that subject. Got it. What I didn’t get was what exactly was bothering them. The New York Times interviewed thirty registered voters in Las Vegas—at a retirement community, in a middle-class neighborhood, and on the courthouse steps, to hear what they had to say about health care. They said a lot, but, their comments meant little. Some were cryptic, inaccurate, and unclear, raising the question of what reporters should do about such quotes.

Take, for example, comments made by Carol Wilken, who gave her age as sixty-two. “We had to go to one of those plans that are Medicare-driven and they tell you what you’re going to do and not going to do,” she said. But sixty-two-year olds are not on Medicare unless they are disabled. So what was Wilken talking about—Medicare private-fee-for-service plans, with their hidden charges and coinsurance, which is available to Medicare beneficiaries? Or was she talking about so-called consumer-driven health plans, with their very high deductibles and complicated savings accounts generally sold to people under sixty-five? Instead of telling us, the Times presented another Wilken quote: “It’s the pits. Don’t ever get old,” she said.

Marlene Lansdell, a registered nurse, said, “I think with Senator Clinton she’s trying to bring in a socialistic health care system which would probably bankrupt the country.” Lansdell hardly has a grip on the Clinton plan—it’s an individual mandate that will force people to buy their own coverage under threat of a penalty. It’s challenge: unless health care costs are controlled, mandating coverage people can’t afford won’t bankrupt the country, as she asserts socialism might, but it could bankrupt families. Half of all personal bankruptcies now are caused by medical bills, a number that could grow as more people find themselves sick and uninsured. Without more explanation and context, Lansdell’s opinion is sort of meaningless, or worse, a false characterization that nonetheless will embed in public consciousness.

Cheryl Reber, a twenty-six-year-old legal secretary, has no insurance, but she told the Times: “I don’t want to go as far as Canada, but we need something more affordable.” What is she trying to say about Canadian health care? What does she think is wrong with it, exactly? Or is she saying she wants to keep the current U.S. system, just a cheaper version? Who knows?

It’s not clear what the value is of confused and out-of-context quotes. People do say them. But should the media just pass along the confusion? Or should they ask another question or two and offer a sentence or two that sets the record straight? I vote for the latter. Health care is complicated enough.

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.