Will Media Coverage Derail Health Care Reform?

In a provocative blog post on the Health Beat Blog Niko Karvounis discusses how media coverage of health care could derail health care reform. Karvounis offers an insightful review of health care coverage in mainstream media and says the challenge will be to make sure titillation doesn’t trump the issues.

The potential for this to happen is obvious. We see it in political coverage regularly. The tendency to cover personality clashes and political spats can take the place of reporting on less colorful but more important matters of policy that will ultimately shape the system.

The risk, says Karvounis, is that the insubstantial will detract from the substantial policy decisions that must be made. We will witness more “horse race” reporting and lose perspective about what’s important.

There are plenty of substantial gaps in health reporting already. Karvounis points to Kaiser Family Foundation research that reveals health care policy comprised less than one percent of news stories and just 27.4% of health-focused stories between January 2007 and June 2008.

In fact, the Foundation reports that news about health and health care comprised barely 4% of all news reported in that time period. Health policy comprised a scant 0.9%.

Karvounis quotes Mark Rushefsky and Kant Patel, authors of Politics, Power, and Policymaking: The Case of Health Care Reform in the 1990s, who say “mass media may not tell us what to think, but they are very successful in telling us what to think about.”

While it’s true the media may, to a significant degree, still focus our attention, Karvounis does not give attention to the availability of new media to mobilize and inform. While his assessment is on the mark, the use of these new media–cell phones, blogs, social networking, email–was not a factor in the most recent attempts at health care reform led by Hillary Clinton. These tools have matured and are more pervasive than ever before. So, while the challenge Karvounis issues to the media is valid, it may not be the only definitive challenge that needs to be heard.

The challenge to utilize other media to inform and mobilize is much more relevant today and could be a powerful way to build a grassroots movement for reform. We haven’t tested this yet, but the time is at hand. The model was pretty well tested during the political campaign and, by all accounts, found to be effective.

While I take Karvounis’ analysis seriously, I find myself saying, “Yes, but.” The “but” is that those citizen-based advocacy groups already at work on health care should give attention to creating a nationwide grassroots advocacy network for health care reform and for addressing the diseases of poverty globally using media available to them right now.

What concerns me about Karvounis’ analysis is not that it’s wrong, but that health care reform and public policy affecting global health are too important to leave to the media, politicians or the health care industry. Grassroots advocacy groups discussing strategy right now must expand beyond traditional approaches such as influencing Washington policy-makers one-by-one (as important this is), build communications networks and use digital media to mobilize the grassroots.

Doing so could potentially keep the focus of the mainstream media on the policy issues and keep the attention of the policymakers on what matters. Obviously, another significant challenge is to achieve consensus about policies and reforms. This is no less difficult today than it has been in the past. It’s more than a communications challenge, of course. It’s a matter of managing conflicting claims and competing solutions, and achieving an acceptable compromise that we can all live with. All the more reason to kick a communications network into gear and keep the focus of the national conversation on policy. If we don’t, this is where we will founder.

And if we do, it may be one way to assure that media coverage doesn’t derail health care reform.

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