Impressions Versus Data, "Death Panel" Edition

Those of us who spend a great deal of time critiquing the media usually have to rely on impressionistic readings to come to judgments about what coverage and discussion of events look like. After all, "the media" is a complex and many-headed beast, and no matter how varied your information diet, you don't see most of what goes on. Unfortunately, systematic analysis of media content is extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, so most of the time all we have to go on is our impressions.

Which brings us to "death panels." My impressionistic reading of coverage of the debate over the Affordable Care Act was that journalists at elite media outlets (network news, national papers, etc.) did a pretty good job of calling out as false the claim that the ACA contained provisions to deny care to seniors or the disabled. (Actually, there were two related false claims circulating: Sarah Palin's "death panel" claim, and Betsy McCaughey's claim that the legislation forced seniors to submit to "a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.") Not that the coverage was perfect by any means, but it seemed that much of the time, journalists were stating explicitly, in their own voices, that the claim was false.

But was that impression correct? I've spoken to other media critics who had a different read on the coverage. Now, some communication scholars have done the work to find out:

Our data indicate that the mainstream news, particularly newspapers, debunked death panels early, fairly often, and in a variety of ways, though some were more direct than others...

Initially, we viewed the data from 30,000 feet, and found that about 40% of the time journalists would call the death panel claim false in their own voice, which was especially surprising considering many journalists' own conceptions that they act as neutral arbiters...

Nonetheless, in more than 60% of the cases it's obvious that newspapers abstained from calling the death panels claim false. (We also looked at hundreds of editorials and letters to the editor, and it’s worth noting that almost 60% of those debunked the claim, while the rest abstained from debunking and just about 2% supported the claim.)

Additionally, of journalists who did debunk the claim, almost 75% of those articles contained no clarification as to why they were labeling the claim as false. Indeed, it was very much a "You either believe me, or you don't" situation without contextual support.

So this looks like a mixed bag: 40 percent of the time, reporters stated the correct facts, which we might think of as the bare minimum needed to prevent being accomplices to the spreading of a lie. Is 40 percent good or bad? Probably better than in some other cases, but not nearly as good as it could be. Furthermore, if 75 percent of those stories contained no explanation of why the claim was false, that means that only 10 percent of all the stories that mentioned "death panels" gave readers or viewers something resembling a real debunking of this particularly pernicious and malicious lie.

So it looks like I was wrong. Perhaps I was too heartened by stories like this one that stuck in my memory, or perhaps I just wasn't paying close enough attention, or perhaps my own media diet is skewed too far toward outlets like NPR that handled the story responsibly. In any case, it's a good reminder not to assume that our impressions of what "the media" are doing are always accurate.