Grill the messenger

Reuters wrote about the Obamacare "messaging war," but didn't vet the messages

Late last week, Reuters published a story on “the messaging war over Obamacare” in which it featured two personal anecdotes—one praising the health reform law and one panning it. The two anecdotes, Reuters reporter Gabriel Debenedetti noted, “have become part of” the health reform messaging battle, in which Democrats point to people who typify the success of Obamacare (I got cheaper insurance and saved gobs of money!) and Republicans focus on folks forced, as Reuters put it, “into unwanted—and sometimes more expensive—changes to their coverage.” All the more reason, you’d think, for a reporter to check those stories out and make sure they tell the whole story before presenting them to the public.

Unfortunately, Reuters did not. (This, even after the media’s failure to properly vet such stories became a story last week).

In Reuters’ lede we meet Wayne Dofflemyer of Hudson, FL, who is no fan of Obamacare.

Because of President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul, Dofflemyer’s insurance company dropped the 70-year-old retiree’s doctor from its network this year. Dofflemyer, who credits the doctor with saving his life when he had a ruptured colon in 2012, switched to a different insurer for about the same price in order to stay with his doctor.

Dofflemyer, we learn, is still angry because of the hassle of switching insurers, and he complained to Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, an arch foe of Obamacare.

Did Reuters look into the very real possibility that Dofflemyer’s inconvenience has nothing to do with Obamacare? As a 70-year-old, he is probably on Medicare (and Medicare beneficiaries were not affected by the insurance cancellations of policies for those in the individual market). He may well have had to switch doctors this year if he had a Medicare Advantage plan, an insurance arrangement in which seniors get their Medicare benefits from an HMO usually at a very low cost. The catch is they must use doctors in the HMO’s network, and it’s not uncommon for these health plans to drop and add doctors every year depending on whether doctors agree to the HMO’s willingness to pay the price they demand. This deck shuffling on the part of the insurer happens every year with or without Obamacare. If this was the case with Dofflemyer, he is hardly an appropriate anecdote for a story about unwanted changes to insurance coverage stemming from Obamacare. (Although Dofflemyer did offer Reuters this compelling quote: “I run into people and Obamacare comes up, and everyone’s like, ‘Bleh.’”)

After Dofflemyer’s likely incomplete tale of woe comes a short paragraph that celebrates the health reform law and raises its own questions. Mark Sullivan, a 31-year-old Texan, told Reuters he was able to sign up for coverage on and will save enough money on health insurance to help start a “business intelligence” website service. The crucial omissions here: How much did he save? What kind of policy did he buy—a cheap model that comes with lots of cost-sharing? And, did he have all the policy details to make a good decision? The reader doesn’t know. Readers do, however, learn from Sullivan “a lot of reporters want to talk about the problems with the website. I can understand that focus, but a lot are missing the bigger story,” which, he says, is that many people on Obamacare will save money on insurance.

And that brings up this point: Where are these anecdotes coming from? “All I did was sign up [on] and tweet about it,” Sullivan told Reuters, and two weeks ago he “got to meet with (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius.” The Sullivan success story has been touted by Enroll America, a public-private group dedicated to enrolling people in state exchanges and founded by Ron Pollack who heads Families USA, one of Obamacare’s chief chearleaders. It looks like Sullivan’s cheap bronze plan, as described by Enroll America, may not give him much coverage—something that should have been investigated by Reuters. The White House, as Reuters noted, has asked Americans to share their Obamacare success stories on its website, while the Senate Republican Conference has solicited what Reuters called “horror stories” at a new website Voila: ready-made anecdotes from both sides for harried reporters on deadline to drop into the opening sentences of their stories, which editors have told them to humanize, humanize, humanize.

It seems reporters have two choices: either report out these tales to see if they hold up, or go out and find (and check out) their own anecdotes. The latter usually makes for better journalism—advice that bears repeating in this era of cherrypicked storytelling.

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Related content:

Five threads reporters missed on Obamacare

Too little, too late on ‘You can keep it’

A failure to ‘ask the questions’

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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: , , , , , ,