Backsliding on the ‘death panels’ myth

The need for caution--and avoiding "he said," "she said"--in reporting on IPAB

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a letter on Thursday stating that they would not recommend individuals for appointment to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), an obscure government panel created as part of the Affordable Care Act in an effort to reduce cost growth in Medicare.

Unfortunately, the board is best known as the current vehicle for the false claim that Obama’s health care plan would create “death panels,” which spread widely after Sarah Palin’s August 2009 Facebook post coining the term. As a result, journalists face a conundrum. The pervasiveness of the myth is part of the reason the partisan dispute over IPAB appointments is now newsworthy—but as I warned back in January, credulous coverage has the potential to reinforce the misperception.

The Associated Press story about the Boehner/McConnell letter, written by Jim Abrams, is a case in point. In his fourth paragraph, Abrams references “death panels” without providing a clear statement to readers that Palin’s claim is unsupported; instead, he portrays the myth as a partisan dispute about the meaning of the law:

The health care law explicitly forbids the board from rationing care, shifting costs to seniors or cutting their benefits, but Republicans have insisted that it will be a vehicle to deny care to seniors. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin referred to “death panels” that would allow the government to withhold life-saving care from the elderly while campaigning in 2008.

The term was also featured prominently in the lede of reports on and Business Insider.

Other reporters were more cautious, however. Writing on Healthwatch, The Hill’s healthcare blog, Sam Baker clarified for readers that IPAB is “a controversial panel designed to slow the growth of Medicare spending” but omitted the term “death panels” entirely for his report.

Alternatively, Reuters correspondent David Morgan provided a model for journalists who wish to acknowledge the existence of the myth while also characterizing the weight of the evidence against it. The final paragraph of his initial story included this disclaimer (a later version did not discuss “death panels”):

Opponents regularly mischaracterized IPAB as a “death panel” that would make end-of-life decisions for Medicare beneficiaries, a myth believed by 40 percent of the American public, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

It’s important for journalists to adopt best practices in reporting on myths like “death panels” rather than backsliding into the “he said,” “she said” style-reporting that was frequently observed during the initial “death panels” controversy. Though IPAB’s cost-cutting process has been delayed for at least a year, the demagoguery surrounding health care cost reduction strategies isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

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

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , ,