Healthcare-related media criticism doesn’t often go viral, or even semi-viral, but the writer Maggie Mahar scored big earlier this month with her “Anatomy of an Obamacare ‘horror story’”—a debunking of a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article about four Obamacare “losers” who, as Mahar wrote, “didn’t want to be winners.” In her post at, Mahar showed how the tale of insurance woe one woman told the Star-Telegram didn’t stand up to basic scrutiny, and how three of the four people featured in the article were associated with the Tea Party, a relevant fact about their political perspectives which the paper hadn’t reported. Soon after, Star-Telegram executive editor Jim Witt apologized in a column, saying “we did not do our job completely and therefore let our readers down.”

It was awfully reminiscent of the Deborah Cavallaro episode last fall, in which a Los Angeles real estate agent made the national media rounds to complain about the outrage of having her policy cancelled before any journalist figured out she was eligible for a subsidy that would get her a comparable plan at a lower cost. Of course, there are also plenty of ready-made testimonials in support of the law circulating in media coverage without much sign of scrutiny. CNNMoney’s late December feature “I signed up for Obamacare!” comes to mind; the six mini-profiles read like press releases from Kathleen Sebelius’ PR shop.

Of course, Obamacare really does bring new benefits to many people. And, both by design and because of errors, it really has been leaving some people worse off, and forcing others to confront trade-offs. Reporting on the experiences of individual people can be an effective way to explore the law’s wide-ranging impact.

But that means really reporting, to learn all the important information about your subject’s Obamacare encounter—including how well they understand their choice—rather than just snagging an anecdote that will serve to prop up a thesis or support a point. Here are six questions to ask yourself before sticking someone’s experience with the Affordable Care Act in your story; if you’ve got others, please leave them in the comments section.

1. Is the anecdote focused on the point you’re trying to make? Have you done enough reporting about both this person and the broader context to know the story you’re showcasing is representative? To use an example from the olden days: an anecdote about a patient denied care by an HMO (and there were many of them) hardly meant that the universe of HMO patients didn’t get care. By the same token, not every good or bad interaction with insurers today is because of Obamacare.

2. Who’s supplying the anecdote, and what’s their mission? Ready-made stories for a press ready to use them should be suspect. In October the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded a $1.1 million grant to Families USA “to expand its well-established story bank operation to produce a substantially higher volume of stories from real people about their experiences with enrollment in new health coverage.” Families USA has been a strong supporter of the health law, and its founding executive director Ron Pollack is a founder of Enroll America, a public-private group whose aim is to sign people up for Obamacare. On the other side, Republicans have set up a website to solicit stories from small businesses and individuals about the “real life consequences”—presumably, harmful ones—of Obamacare. There may be some kernels of useful material in what journalists get from these groups, but handle with care.

3. What’s meant by “affordable”? Reporting that John or Jane Doe got a cheapo premium is insufficient and potentially misleading—because there’s a good chance it comes with a high deductible and substantial cost-sharing in the form of co-pays and coinsurance. President Obama sold the law on the promise of affordable, quality healthcare, and it’s the total out-of-pocket spending that determines how affordable healthcare really is.

4. What does the person really know about the policy? To drill down into cost-sharing, it’s not enough to report that your shopper got a low co-pay to see the family doc or even a specialist. That’s not where the action is. Insurers have larded up their offerings with coinsurance of 30, 40, or 50 percent on expensive services people tend to use, like hospital outpatient and imaging services. The costs of MRIs or cataract surgery can add up. If your interview subject can’t tell you what the coinsurance is, what other important details might they be unaware of?

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.