When President Obama proposed his new healthcare plan to Congress in 2009, it included a provision for Medicare to pay for visits where patients discussed their "end of life" care with a doctor. That small part of the healthcare bill snowballed into a major controversy when Sarah Palin dubbed it a "death panel." Louisiana State University Professor Regina Lawrence analyzed media coverage of the phrase and says outlets failed to debunk the false claim.
BOB GARFIELD: When President Obama proposed his health care plan to Congress roughly two years ago, it included a provision for Medicare to pay for the visits of patients opting to discuss their end-of-life care with a doctor. That small part of the Health Care Bill snowballed into a major controversy when Sarah Palin dubbed it a “death panel.”
PolitiFact quickly debunked the false claim of death panels, even as the media covered the issue incessantly, with more than 800 related articles appearing in newspapers around the country.
Dr. Regina Lawrence is a professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, where she and a colleague recently presented a paper analyzing how the media covered the death panel claim.
REGINA LAWRENCE: When we began this study, gosh, two years ago now almost, we went in with the assumption that news stories would either debunk the claim in some way or they would do he said/she said. What we actually found is in a fair number of stories they did both, and we weren't prepared to find that.
You could - you had a fair number of stories that –
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait. I'm sorry. You’re saying that, that there would be a paragraph that says, “The sky is not brown.”
REGINA LAWRENCE: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: And then they would go to the brown camp and get a quote from them, “The sky is indeed brown.”
REGINA LAWRENCE: Yes, yes. And that was one predominant pattern in the coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: Permit me to play devil’s advocate here.
REGINA LAWRENCE: Please.
BOB GARFIELD: On the face of it, it would seem that, having debunked the claim, it is a pointless, even silly, even dangerous exercise to give airing to the opposing view. On the other hand, there’s the question at hand: Are there death panels? Is there climate change? Do vaccines cause autism in children? These have been settled scientifically, but the political controversy does continue. So aren't journalists stuck? If they ignore the political controversy, perhaps they're abdicating their responsibility to report the underlying politics.
REGINA LAWRENCE: I think that you’re right, and that’s exactly the dilemma that we wanted to illuminate in this paper, that journalists are stuck, as you put it. There’s even a, a trap there, if you will, because if a policymaker or a politician wants to make news, it’s pretty easy to do so with one of these very, you know, controversial claims that is sure to get news attention.
And once others begin talking about it, particularly in this case you have the President, prominent members of Congress all then reacting and trying to either promote the death panels notion or, you know, knock it down, as the President himself did in a number of town hall meetings. Once you've got that going on, what is an objective reporter to do? Because, after all, one of the leading definitions of news, really, in [LAUGHS] practice, is what powerful people are saying? That’s the news.
BOB GARFIELD: What if I said to you that whatever journalistic solution is finally embraced matters not at all because other academics have shown again and again two things: Number one, the more we hear the claim debunked, the more we believe the original misinformation, and the second academic revelation, that we tend to believe whatever we wish to believe, irrespective of the available facts.
REGINA LAWRENCE: It’s also important to remember though, that’s one part of the audience. There’s still a big middle out there which is not so polarized, which is not so defined by predispositions that you can't reach them. And for that middle, I think it’s the repetition that’s especially [LAUGHS] problematic because for that middle, that maybe has less political knowledge and less political views to guide them, they just hear “death panels, death panels, death panels.” And for them, the outcome can be, “Oh, there must be something to this death panels business.”
BOB GARFIELD: You've studied newspapers and not cable news, for example. But one of the problems within the daily newspaper business is it’s daily and it’s transitory and that once you cover a story and there’s nothing further to add that’s that. So once you do the PolitiFact due diligence and print it in the newspaper, that’s taken care of, but the supposed controversies tend to be ongoing and you can't continue to run the same PolitiFact debunking every time the subject comes up. Or can you? Should you? Should there - should there be some sort of –
REGINA LAWRENCE: [LAUGHS] Or can you?
BOB GARFIELD: - I don't know, graphic device that says, you know, this story has already been deemed to be just so much nonsense?
REGINA LAWRENCE: That’s a - an interesting point. Would it be possible to have that little sort of, you know, informational fact box, if you will [LAUGHS], sitting beside each one of these stories that are talking about something like death panels, which is relatively easy to debunk?
BOB GARFIELD: Truth in labeling: the issue being discussed by these politicians has been determined by PolitiFact to be a big bunch of baloney.
REGINA LAWRENCE: [LAUGHS] It would have to be a little bit more involved than that, I would think, if you really wanted it to be useful, but you could provide a paragraph or so with a - you know, the address of a website to go to to learn more.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me one reason why I shouldn't be just curled up in a fetal position and, and sobbing?
REGINA LAWRENCE: [LAUGHS] You know, I really think, I mean, don't you, journalism is in a key moment of, of crisis, obviously, economically, but also in terms of figuring out what the model is for news in the future. This might be a great starting point for thinking about how do you break out of those tried-and-trued formulas of just covering what the politicians are saying and doing the he said/she said. Isn't this a great opportunity to break out of that and, and find news that people will find more useful and that hopefully they'll find more interesting and will tune into?
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much.
REGINA LAWRENCE: Thank you.
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BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Regina Lawrence is a professor of mass communication at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.