DETROIT, MI — Healthcare reporters are in a tricky spot. They may understand that covering the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges is essentially a consumer story at this point. But the story is so politicized, it’s difficult for those on the frontlines to navigate the fog.
Alex Nixon, a business reporter who covers the healthcare beat for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, said that he’s working to keep coverage focused on what the law does, who it affects, and who it doesn’t affect. “But the stories that seem to be gaining traction are the ones that seem to be politically motivated and affect a small group of people, [such as] canceled plans [and] rate shock,” he said. (CJR’s own Trudy Lieberman has written about the healthcare stories “sucking up so much of the media’s attention of late,” and who such stories leave out.)
“Navigating the politics of Obamacare is certainly one of the biggest challenges in covering this story. I’m trying to stay out of the politics, but it’s very difficult,” Nixon said.
Sarah Jane Tribble, a journalist with Cleveland public radio WCPN, echoed that point. “I do not face any pressure from the editors here to turn the stories into political stories. But I do think that the sources often try to do that.”
Tribble and Nixon discussed this during a recent online roundtable that CJR’s United States Project convened with reporters to candidly discuss the possibilities and pitfalls of chronicling the ACA. Also in the “room” were Steve Koff, Washington DC bureau chief for the Cleveland Plain Dealer; Ben Sutherly, Columbus Dispatch reporter; Trudy Lieberman of CJR; and myself. Our hope is that this will be the first of an occasional series of online conversations about best practices for healthcare reporting.
In this inaugural chat, sourcing for stories emerged as one of the top concerns for healthcare reporters. It’s no surprise that groups both for and against Obamacare’s implementation are working overtime to supply reporters around the country with sources friendly to their side. Families USA and Enroll America are private groups aimed at helping the government enroll millions of Americans for health insurance; they are also serving as reporter-ready anecdote banks supporting the ACA’s implementation (meet, among others, “Steve W.” from New York who was “able to purchase a comprehensive plan for $207 a month…The entire process took less than an hour …and the choices were transparent.”) Meanwhile, for example, Senate Republicans are collecting and sharing anecdotes about the “real-life”—read: negative—“consequences of Obamacare.”
Nixon, of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, said that Enroll America reached out to offer up people “who’ve had really great experiences signing up for coverage and are paying very small monthly premiums because of subsidies.” But, Nixon added, “Is that the general experience? Tracking down real people who’ve had experience and aren’t politically motivated has been the biggest challenge so far.”
Tribble, of WCPN, did a piece in September on Enroll America’s first venture into Cleveland. But she said that while she wants to keep track of their recruitment efforts for reporting purposes, “I’m finding the folks they offer up [as sources] to be unique as opposed to representing the masses—so to speak.” That is, even if the sources provided can attest to an authentically positive experience with the exchanges, Tribble has a reporter’s natural skepticism when this is presented as a uniform experience.
But finding more representative stories from people who have signed up for the exchanges is tough. As Tribble pointed out, in states like Ohio, relatively few signed up by the end of November. (Ohio rejected the option of a state-run exchange, so residents relied on Healthcare.gov, which had well-documented glitches for the first months of its roll-out.). At the same time, Tribble said, no one is keeping a comprehensive running tally of enrollees. “Some insurers have [a tally] ready, others say they don’t,” she said.
So what’s a fair-minded—and time-strapped—journalist to do to find local voices that don’t have an agenda?
For starters, there are opportunities to bring fresh takes on the anecdote banks, as Tribble did with her Enroll America story. Another example is a piece from October by Lindy Washburn, a health reporter for The Record in northern New Jersey, which Trudy Lieberman hat-tipped here at CJR. Washburn went out with Enroll America’s workers, joining them as they went down a bread line near a New Jersey trailer park and tried to explain the exchanges to people. According to Lieberman, Washburn spoke to many people on her own, choosing them at random, which “may be the key” for an original, not orchestrated, take.