How Not to Cover a Speech

In health care, challenge the bromides

The Roanoke Times ran a story on Friday about Barack Obama’s campaign kickoff in Southwest Virginia. It’s the kind of story we hope will not become a model for covering the stump speeches, at least as they relate to health care. The paper reported that “Obama touted a universal health care plan he said would provide insurance to the 47 million people who don’t have it while lowering costs for those who do.” There’s just one problem: his plan does not guarantee health insurance to everyone, and it’s up to the news outlets who report on such talk to set the record straight and provide context for their audiences, lest they be misled.

The paper also listed Obama’s other oft-stated health goals: lowering premiums by $2,500 a year, preventing exclusions for pre-existing conditions, offering government subsidies for people who can’t afford coverage, and bringing various health care interests together to work out plan details in televised negotiations But how? And how realistic? We need to include more details in covering these kinds of speeches.

The paper dutifully followed the standard journalistic practice, giving John McCain’s rejoinder. It said McCain released a statement calling Obama’s plan “unrealistic” while promoting his own $5,000 tax credit for families. And the Times also gave space for McCain’s own vacuous sound bites: “Unlike Barack Obama, John McCain has the experience to understand that big government bureaucracy discourages competition, threatens our quality of health care and ensures the inefficiencies and frustrations Americans will not stand for.” What threats? What inefficiencies? What frustrations? The paper didn’t follow up.

In short, the Times presented readers with the classic he said/she said coverage of a campaign event. We would argue that isn’t good enough and offer a modest suggestion for changing the story prototype. Reporters who cover the speeches and desk editors who correct the copy should bone up on the facts behind the words that the candidates most certainly will throw out. For example, when Obama talks of his “universal” plan, point out that it is not. When he talks about lowering premiums by $2,500, ask the policy experts just how this will happen, if it will happen at all. When McCain talks about inefficiencies and threats, make his people list them and show proof they exist. Will competition really lower the cost of health care? What’s the evidence? All it takes is a sentence or two of explanation that will help audiences understand that candidates speak spin, and that good reporters try to decipher and translate that spin accurately They will be grateful, and most important they will know a lot more about what each candidates’ health plan will really do.

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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.