Quick: With the passage of the healthcare reform bill, in what way will your life change? What will you pay for that you did not before? What will you not pay for that you did before? When? Again, how will your life be different exactly?
Pew Research recently put out a fascinating study that looked back at 5,500 healthcare related news items from radio, print, web and television, spanning June 2009 to March 2010 (when the bill passed) and examined what angles the press chose to cover. First, over all news stories healthcare-related pieces were the number one item (14%), easily beating the economy (12%) and the war in Afghanistan (6%). Second, “Liberal” talk-show hosts (I’m not sure how that definition was reached) talked healthcare 44% of the time, to “Conservative” talk show hosts’ 26%. But third—and this is what I found the most interesting— the media chose to cover tactics, strategy and the legislative process of passing this bill, and the day-to-day projected Congressional voting score, 49% of the time. Essentially one in two news stories was about The Game of getting the bill through the House and Senate.
So how much coverage was spent on the actual state of our current healthcare system—its stories, its statistics, its data, its strengths, its weaknesses, its pros, cons, ups, downs? You know, the stuff that makes the healthcare industry 14% of the United States economy and allows you to form an opinion about it?
9%. Or a little less than one in ten stories…or about 5 times the coverage The Game garnered. To complete the picture, 23% of stories were devoted to legislative proposals and solutions but Pew discounted much of that because they were done with the slant of “this is how to word/change the bill to get it through Congress.”
So well over half our stories were about The Game and yet, we don’t even know what kind of ball we’re playing with—what was really in that bill and what does it mean for us? This tugs at the old chicken-and-the-egg question: Are the actions of journalism the fault of readers or journalists? In other words, let’s pretend there is a ridiculous amount of coverage about a pro golfer’s sex life, which is utterly pointless and doesn’t amount to a stack of pancakes in anyone’s actual life; is it the press’s fault for continuing to cover it, or ours for continuing to watch it? I am very firmly in the latter camp. Follow the dollar and you’ll notice it starts with our hands, ears and eyes. We hold the remote, the mouse and the radio dial. If there is garbage on, we can turn it off. Only by cutting down media at its roots—advertising dollars—will any change come about in its quality.
But that’s not what I found interesting about these coverage data. If we assume that the media is in fact a reflection of Us, Our Attention Span and Our Interest, then you have to conclude that this glaring 49%+, this one-in-two, was what we wanted. We listened, read and watched The Game to see how it would play out. The producers would have changed the programming if we hadn’t.
So my question is—does this country’s obsession with winning cause it to become ignorant? It seems that we allow the element of competition to distract us from the realities of the actual game. The World Cup is a nice parallel. Most Americans don’t truly understand the beautiful game of soccer (my hand is raised here) but we pack bars and foam at the mouth over every US goal. We want to win, yet we have no idea how we’re really doing it.
It seems this details-ignorant, outcome-centric thinking seeped into our healthcare debate and maybe it has for our entire political discourse. Just win, baby. We know our team (Donkeys vs. Elephants! Oh, an Independent? Cool, you’re still rooting for one of them.) and as long as the good guys are ahead when time runs out, and that legislation does or doesn’t pass, we’re happy. But how awesome can winning be if you don’t understand what you’ve won?
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at