In the last few weeks, the press has started to use the term “government run” to describe a public insurance option that would compete with coverage sold by private insurance companies. “Schumer Points to a Middle Ground on Government-Run Health Insurance,” read a recent New York Times headline. The phrase has become pejorative short hand for describing what a public plan is, even if Luntz thinks “government takeover” works better. In reality, no one—least of all the public—knows exactly what a public plan will look like. Journalists should describe what a plan will and won’t do, and curb the tendency to use shorthand that unwittingly passes along the Luntz-tested terminology.
Use horror stories from Canada, Luntz says. They “do resonate,” he explains. I say think twice about running them. Whenever some anecdote is trotted out about poor care in Canada, it’s wise to remember that the media ran with the horror stories during the last round of health reform, and misled the public. When The New York Times reported that women were waiting in line for pap smears, the Canadian ambassador sent a letter to the editor refuting the claim; but by then it was conventional wisdom that women could not get pap smears in Canada. The takeaway: When some pol makes a claim about rationing in Canada and waiting in line for health care, investigate it. Make a call or two to Canada and find out what’s really going on.
When, in the early 1990s, the claim was made that people in British Columbia were denied heart surgery, I went to Canada to find out. A judge who headed a royal commission investigating the claims told me everyone one of the stories fell apart when Canadians scrutinized them. However, that didn’t stop the American press from repeating them.
Frank Luntz’s message teaches and reinforces what good journalism is all about. Language matters. So use it well.