Today, the trustees of the Social Security system will issue their annual report card on the trust funds that pay retirement, survivor, and disability benefits to millions of Americans. For the last few years, these reports have typically noted shortfalls, which the media in turn, have often portrayed as gloom-and-doom scenarios of impending disaster.

If the past is a guide, a full discussion of the options for closing those shortfalls will again be missing. Stories will tend to reinforce the belief among many Americans that these programs will not be there for them, which is most likely dead wrong. Full context, in short, will be missing.

I hope that’s not the case this time around, but we don’t have to look far for recent examples of missing context when it comes to Social Security. Take “Unfit for Work—the startling rise of disability in America.” Please. The program was produced by This American Life and Planet Money, and aired on public radio at the end of March.

That piece left the impression that freeloaders are gaming Social Security’s disability program, that disability benefits are becoming welfare payments to support those out-of-work, and that the disability program is fast becoming an increasingly expensive safety net. In preparation for this year’s trustees’ annual report, it’s worth taking a second look at “Unfit for Work,” which generated zillions of comments in the blogosphere and serious pushback from knowledgeable people that challenged its premises. Reviewing where that piece went off the track should be a big help to reporters trying to get this year’s trustees’ story right.

The piece resonated widely, particularly with those already open to the Social Security-is-going-bankrupt story. At a recent Medicare workshop for journalists in St. Petersberg, I pushed Judith Lave, a University of Pittsburgh health economics professor, for her sources of information about disability. “My source of information is NPR,” she replied. Back home, a dinner guest, a smart professional woman I know, happened to mention how dismayed she was that disability benefits had become the new welfare checks. Her source: the Planet Money/This American Life piece, which had run the day before.

In his column on Time’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein wrote:
“Welfare abuse has shifted to Social Security.” Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane acknowledged that some of the program growth comes from an aging workforce but added:

A growing body of economic and journalistic evidence suggests that SSDI reduces work incentives, because of its permissive eligibility criteria and relatively high benefits, as compared to low-wage workers’ potential earnings.

The reporter of “Unfit for Work,” Chana Joffe-Walt, seemed to omit crucial information on her way to passing on unfavorable impressions about the program, gleaned in part from a visit to one of the poorest counties in the US, Hale County, Alabama, where one in four residents are on Social Security disability and where Joffe-Walt says the definitions of who gets on and who doesn’t are “squishy.”

Throughout her piece, she seems to suggest it’s easy to qualify for benefits. It isn’t. To qualify, a person must have a disability so severe that it prevents him or her from doing any significant work anywhere in the country. The disability must be expected to last at least a year or result in death. The process requires extensive medical documentation. The Social Security Administration makes the final determination, which can take months, if not years.

Less than half of applicants for disability get it. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, whose analyses often focus on the impact of federal policies on low-income people, only about 400 Social Security disability applicants out of 1,000 are successful, and two-thirds of those get benefits only after an appeal. And the successful ones get benefits only after a five-month waiting period. None of this made it into her report.

Nor did she note the ratio of people who are disabled to people who get disability benefits, important context. According to the neutral, non-partisan National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), 8.8 million workers received disability benefits at the beginning of this year. In 2010, 29.5 million adult Americans reported having some kind of disability.

The Center’s Kathy Ruffing questioned the use of Hale County, which the report used to generalize its conclusions. Ruffing pointed out that the country has an older, less-educated workforce, and an economy based on forestry, mining, and manufacturing, which tend to spawn more work-related disabilities than service industries. In Hale County, Joffe-Walt met up with Dr. Perry Timberlake, who examines candidates for disability benefits and makes judgment calls about their qualifications while asking about their schooling. Joffe-Walt reported “Dr. Timberlake is making a judgment call that if you have a particular back problem and a college degree, you’re not disabled. Without the degree you are.”

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.