Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Six questions writers should ask before including an anecdote in an article about Obamacare

Journalists should be careful which anecdotes to include in a story about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, because the examples may not support the story the way the writers intend, Trudy Lieberman writes for Columbia Journalism Review.

She cites "Anatomy of an Obamacare 'horror story'," in which Maggie Mahar points out the holes in a Fort Worth-Star Telegram article about four people who experienced unfavorable circumstances because of Obamacare; the writer left out several pertinent facts about the individuals involved that would change the impact of the story. Here are six questions Lieberman suggests to consider before including an individual's experience with the reform law in a story:

1. "Is the anecdote focused on the point you're trying to make?" In other words, do you know enough about this person's story to be certain it provides a fair representation of the population for which you're trying to provide a voice? One horror story—or success story—hardly in and of itself affords hard evidence of the state of the big picture, Lieberman writes.

2. "Who is supplying the anecdote, and what's their mission?" Depending on what a person or group is trying to convey, they'll offer stories to match. For example, "ready-made stories for a press ready to use them should be suspect," Lieberman writes. Depending upon where they're from, the gatherer of the stories will solicit anecdotes supporting a certain perspective.

3. "What's meant by 'affordable?'" Explaining that a family got a low premium might be misleading because the low premium likely came with a high deductible and included co-pays and co-insurance. "President Obama sold the law on the promise of affordable, quality health care, and it's the total out-of-pocket spending that determines how affordable health care really is," Lieberman writes.

4. "What does the person really know about the policy?" For example, a person may be pleased with his or her insurance because of a seemingly low coinsurance cost for a trip to the doctor. However, the real percentage cost might be 30, 40 or 50 percent, and that can really add up when it comes to the cost of an MRI or something else notoriously expensive.

5. "How much time did the person spend shopping?" Finding thorough information about health insurance plans can be difficult. Some opponents of the law may not have realized they qualified for subsidies, while others may have quickly signed up for the cheapest plan; a fast choice probably denotes that a third party advised the decision, Lieberman writes.

6. "Do you need an anecdote at all?" Some stories simply work better without anecdotes. Harvard pollster Robert Blendon said, "The complexity of the law allows either side to manipulate the press cycle. Stories where a lot of people lose something will have greater impact than stories of people who just gain something." (Read more)

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