Hiltzik told me that he asked Cavallaro if she had shopped the insurance exchange, and Cavallaro said she’d contacted a broker who had shopped for her (she did mention the exchanges on CNBC, asserting “I’d be paying more for the exchange plans than I am currently paying by a wide margin.”) Apparently, the broker didn’t do a very good job of it. Because Hiltzik did a little shopping around on California’s health plan exchange—independent reporting!—and found Cavallaro was eligible for a subsidy of $200 a month, which would help give her affordable options after all, and concluded that Obamacare actually gives her “vastly more affordable” coverage than she has now. The Obamacare PR shop was so pleased with Hiltzik’s story, it sent around a press release touting the findings of Hiltzik’s shopping trip. Why didn’t reporters, other than Hiltzik, check out Cavallaro’s story—independently confirm whether her “only” options were indeed pricier than her current plan—before they spread it far and wide?

Cavallaro, appearing Friday on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, told Hewitt (who asked if she felt used by the LA Times’ Hiltzik) that “in all fairness to Michael Hiltizk…he was doing a good reporting job, because he did ask the questions. And Michael, if you’re listening, I mean, I think you did ask the questions that nobody else asked.” Why didn’t any other reporters ask? (Cavallaro went on to tell Hewitt that even if she may not be paying more under Obamacare, it’s actually the “shrunken network” of doctors she’s worried about—a topic I’ve suggested reporters explore—and they have).

Hiltzik concluded in his piece that Cavallaro “has been very poorly served by the health insurance industry and the news media,” reporting that maybe Anthem didn’t properly explain her options. I raised that problem when I told the story of a Pennsylvania woman who was not advised by Aetna in its cancellation letter last summer that she might be eligible for a subsidy. In the American Prospect, Paul Waldman asserted “there’s something fishy going on here, not just from the reporters, but from the insurance companies.” But that’s another story. This post is about the media, and Cavallaro’s appearances on so many news shows suggest either that someone or some organization offered up her story or that journos lazily cribbed from each other in their effort to personalize their Obamacare “horror story” segments. (I tried to reach Cavallaro to ask how her local CBS station—her first media appearance on this topic, as far as I can tell—found her. She has not returned my calls.) More importantly, regardless of how reporters connected with Cavallaro, too many of them failed to independently investigate her statements.

Generally, I’m a big fan of trying to put a human face on a complex problem. But reporters playing the anecdote game would do well to consider Alex Koppelman’s recent New Yorker piece, “Why Obamacare Might Help the Man on Fox.” Koppelman reported on a couple with two sons in the market for new insurance. They seem like the perfect couple for a story about the Affordable Care Act—except they aren’t. The dad was a lobbyist for the Association of Mature Americans, a conservative alternative to the AARP (liberal groups, too, have “ordinary people” they can tap as anecdotes to buttress their side of the story when a reporter calls.). Koppelman noted that Fox News reporter Jim Angle, in his story featuring the couple, “does not appear to have ever disclosed” the dad’s work to viewers.

On November 3, The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn wrote about another “poster child for the Obamacare cancellation story” whose story, upon closer examination, “defies quick and easy description” (ahem, CBS News and Fox News, and, we’d add, NBC and Marketplace). The bottom line is (and it’s so simple, so fundamental, it almost sounds ridiculous): reporters need to vet people and their claims carefully before showcasing them. Anything less is indefensibly poor journalism.

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

Related content:

Reviewing Obamacare coverage: Week 1

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

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.