It seems to me that there needs to be a new way to think about these stories, in terms of the writing, in terms of the presentation.
Remember that at its core, it’s really about decisions over how we structure the system—basically government versus private sector. And within that, it’s, “Do we have a whole new delivery system, or do we build on what we have now?” Those are the two big decisions. And then within them, there are a zillion more decisions. But if you keep those overarching decisions in your head, it’s a little bit easier. The world is a different place than in 1993. This is going to be more “how” rather than “whether” we change the system.

People’s eyes glaze over when a story contains difficult concepts, such as risk selection. How do we keep readers from tuning out?
Find something that makes a great metaphor. For a story on s-chip, one of the issues was, “Will people drop private coverage and take government coverage?” It’s hard to explain. Jon Gruber, an economist at MIT, talked about tuna and dolphins. You want to catch the uninsured tuna without also catching the insured dolphins, but the two swim together and are in similar financial situations. I managed to do an arcane story in a way that listeners could understand.

How do we use numbers so people don’t tune out? I use as few as I absolutely need to and hope for the best. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to find yourself a really good explainer. Maybe you’ve got a professor at a local college. There are lots of people who know about this and are really good at explaining. And it’s not just the five or six people who we national reporters like to use. Go find them.

Reporters often tell us that editors don’t see policy stories as very sexy.
Editors should look at the polls. They suggest that health care and health insurance are right up there after Iraq in terms of what the public wants to see addressed. 


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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.