During debate on the ACA and continuing to this day, the president, his staff, and health reform advocates repeatedly used the phrase “affordable, quality healthcare.” Pollsters found people wanted “affordable” care and were afraid of losing the coverage they had—good, bad, or mediocre. In an interview last week with CNN, HHS Secretary Sebelius used the term “affordable” some eight times in trying to defend healthcare.gov’s failures. And yet, the press scarcely noticed that since the passage of the law almost four years ago, health insurance premiums for many people were becoming less affordable (let alone explain the causes of this price rise and how it meshed with the Affordable Care Act).

Back in 2009, I urged journos to report on the affordability question, noting that the 160 million Americans who get employer coverage often have to choose new policies each year. So much for keeping the coverage they liked. And the subsidies? Almost no one in the media questioned whether they would be adequate over time. I tried to spark coverage of the individual mandate to buy insurance, the penalties for not buying, and why both were necessary in the insurance scheme this political system would allow.

There will be more “surprises” in the coming weeks as Americans are able to get on the government website and shop for coverage. They will learn how limited the coverage is for cheap insurance and how costly good insurance will be. Enough sensationalistic coverage (witness NBC News presenting its story as a White House cover up). What’s needed, at this point, are good explainers and good old fashioned consumer journalism to help people navigate the exchanges. Can the media redeem itself?

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

Related content:

Ron Wyden Speaks Out

The Best-Covered News Story, Ever?

Examining the Individual Mandate

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

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.