Where, oh where are all those poor people?

"Rate shock victims" aren't the only ones suffering out there right now. But you wouldn't know that from the news.

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past two weeks, odds are you’ve heard the unhappy tale of at least one “Obamacare loser” or “rate shock” victim or “poster child.” (On Monday, I traced one Deborah Cavallaro’s media-go-round—CBS 2, NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, Marketplace, Fox News—telling the world about her health insurance cancellation letter and her inability to find affordable coverage in the California exchange). Reporters have been eagerly transmitting these sad stories, too often simplifying them and/or failing to check them out.

On Tuesday, New York’s Jonathan Chait took a smart stab at explaining “What’s behind the [media’s] Rate-Shock-Victim Obsession.” Wrote Chait:

The media’s obsessive focus on the failed [healthcare.gov] website launch was [last week] beginning to give way to stories about individuals who found higher-than-expected prices on the exchanges. …

The news media has a natural attraction to bad news over good. “Millions Set to Gain Low-Cost Insurance” is a less attractive story than “Florida Woman Facing Higher Costs.” Obama overstated the case when he repeatedly assured Americans that nobody would lose their current health-care plan. There’s also an economic bias at work. Victims of rate shock are middle-class, and their travails, in general, tend to attract far more lavish coverage than the problems of the poor.

Did you know, Chait asked, that on November 1, millions of Americans suffered painful cuts to nutritional assistance and not any Sunday morning talk show mentioned that? I’d add, while we’re at it, that with the exception of David Rodgers’ great coverage of the farm bill on Politico, you’d never know that Congressional support for food stamps had waned long ago. And what about those waiting lists for home-delivered meals for the elderly authorized by the Older Americans Act, which are stretching longer by the day because of the sequester? For that matter, Congress has yet to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, which also provides important services to keep elders in their homes. You’d think that would merit press coverage, too. Aside from a few local stories in community papers, we haven’t heard much about the plight of very old people going without food and other services.

Food is a crucial component of good health, but you’d never know it from the tales of woe told to the media by folks like Deborah Cavallaro who want to keep their very mediocre, sometimes poor insurance coverage. Chait deserves a hat tip for urging his brethren to move on. Maybe, just maybe, reporters will show an interest in one of the myriad sad stories out there that don’t involve insurance cancellations befalling the mostly married, white, college-educated, GOP-leaning folks (as Politico described them) who have sucked up so much of the media’s attention of late.

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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. Tags: , , , , , , , ,