1 November 2013 Comments Off

How I became the dullest part of the health reform story

As a longtime journalist, I’ve always wanted to be on the front of The New York Times.

It finally happened Friday, but it wasn’t a report I edited or wrote. I was a subject in a story about Americans whose health insurance policies were being discontinued as a result of the Affordable Care Act and had to find new ones.

The article was headlined, “When Insurers Drop Policies: Three Stories.” My “story” was the shortest one–two paragraphs out of 32–probably because it was the least interesting. After all, I had no serious difficulty finding a new policy, the Washington state insurance exchange worked well after some initial glitches and I’ll be paying less for the new policy.

The other stories had more drama. One subject was angry — angry that his insurance company discontinued his policy and offered another one that was much more expensive and angry that he had trouble signing onto Heathcare.gov to search for other options. The other subject was frightened by the future  and lamented  that she was having trouble finding information about her options.

I have no problem with my dealings with the Times on this story. I responded to a tweet from the Times in my Twitter feed a week or so ago asking people to tell about their experiences using the health exchange websites to look for coverage. I answered a very well-done questionnaire and sent it back. A few days later, I got a call from a Times reporter, who very ably conducted a thorough interview and followed up via email. And I’m always happy to put my little town of Birch Bay, Wash., on the map.

Much journalism today — and the Times is better than most — is framed in a “he said, she said” template in which conflict and anger are essential ingredients. Maybe no one would read the stories otherwise. I know a long  tale of my navigating the health insurance exchange would probably put even me to sleep.

Still, I’m not sure the conflict narrative is the best way to get to the truth of a complex subject like health care reform. Interestingly–to me, anyway–the accompanying graphic  in the Times about why some people’s insurance was being discontinued shed a lot more light on the subject. It was beautifully done.

Another example of how to cover a contentious subject without viewing it through the conflict prism is “Voices of Coal,” from EarthFix, a partner with Oregon Public Broadcasting. This multimedia report on coal port projects in the Pacific Northwest  presents the first-person perspectives of nine people who have widely varying opinions on a highly divisive subject.  Instead of focusing on the conflict of environmentalists versus business interests, it shows there are many sides of the story, not just pro and con. You might call it “stakeholder storytelling.”

Health care reform is a contentious and complicated subject that breeds conflict. After all, we’ve been debating it in this country since the New Deal — and before. I’m sure we’ll be debating ways to tell the story for a long time to come.



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