the press turns to explanation, after the decision is made

“American consumers, who spent a year watching Congress scratch and claw over sweeping health care legislation, can now try to figure out what the overhaul would mean for them.” — Tara Siegel Bernard, today’s New York Times.

Actually, the news media spent a year feeding American citizens a steady diet of stories about Congressional procedure, the possible impact of health-care reform on elections, and quotes that falsely described the bill or denounced its critics. Americans never showed any desire to watch Congress “scratch and claw.” They would have appreciated some information about what various legislative bills would do.

Now that the bill has passed, reporters finally feel an obligation to explain it. Bernard’s story lists the major provisions, although The Times also feels obliged to run a front-page “news analysis” of Obama’s alleged strategy (he cast a “bet that the Republicans … overplayed their hand”), a separate article about political fights to come, and a panoply of one-liners: “Freedom dies a little bit today …” “It is almost like the Salem Witch trials …” The ratio of substance to horse-race reporting remains low, but I predict that weekly news magazines and metropolitan dailies will begin to run helpful explanatory pieces.

The job of the press is not to tell us who won or lost, or how a bill will affect our votes in the next election. Its job is to give us information that we can combine with our values to reach judgments. Measured by that standard, the press failed spectacularly during the health care debate. Reporters are partly responsible for the public’s deep misunderstanding of the bill–although the Democratic leadership also did a poor job explaining it, and we citizens should bear some responsibility, too.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist/blogger who studies such things, doubts that public misconceptions will dissipate any time soon. His research suggests that myths are stubborn and that efforts to correct them often backfire by inadvertently reinforcing the very misinformation that they seek to rebut.

As it must be, his work is based on data from the past, plus lab experiments. I think the health care situation may prove unusual, because (1) the legislation is momentous and will capture public attention, (2) the level of misinformation is striking, so there is lots of room for improvement, (3) people have incentives to learn what the bill means to them, (4) unless you are an ideologue, you have no motivation to reject positive information about the bill, and (5) trustworthy intermediaries, such as primary care physicians, have incentives to understand it and explain it accurately. I would be surprised if public understanding doesn’t rise.

But there I go, prognosticating about public opinion–just like a reporter. The important question is what the bill will actually do. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to find out, if you don’t know already.

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