How the media covers health care rulings, cont’d

HOW THE MEDIA COVERS HEALTH CARE RULINGS, CONT’D…. We talked a few weeks ago about the very different ways in which the media responds to court rulings on the Affordable Care Act. Those upholding the constitutionality of the health care law get very little attention, while conservative rulings against the law are literally treated as front-page news.

Now that there’s a new federal court ruling — Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in support of the law on Tuesday, becoming the fifth to rule on the merits — let’s take a moment to reevaluate this.

Three federal district courts have said the Affordable Care Act meets constitutional muster; two have reached the opposite conclusion. Here’s how four major media outlets have covered the rulings, in the order in which the decisions came down:

Washington Post
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A2, 607 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page B5, 507 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1624 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1176 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): no article, zero words

New York Times
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A15, 416 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A24, 335 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1320 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1192 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A14, 488 words

Associated Press
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 474 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 375 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 915 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 1164 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 595 words

Politico
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 830 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 535 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): three pieces, 2734 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): four pieces, 3437 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 702 words

[Update: here’s this same data in chart form.]

To clarify a couple of things, it’s true the Washington Post print edition published literally nothing on the Kessler ruling. Politico, meanwhile, did run a 702-word piece, but it was largely about the broader health care fight, and only briefly mentioned this week’s Kessler ruling.

As a legal matter, none of these ruling is more important than the other — they’re all at the federal district level, they’re all dealing with the same law, and they’ll all be subjected to an appeal.

And yet, the discrepancy is overwhelming. In every instance, conservative rulings get more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

Ezra Klein wrote a few weeks ago about a possible explanation.

The two judges who ruled for the bill upheld the status quo. And they went first. So their rulings changed nothing. No one could accuse me of harboring an anti-ACA agenda, but I didn’t give those rulings much coverage.

The two judges who ruled against the bill called for enormous changes to the status quo, and enormous changes to the status quo are almost the definition of what “news” is. These two rulings have genuinely called the bill’s future into question, and that’s a big story.

That strikes me as fair. Most sensible people have long considered the health reform law constitutional, so those first two rulings merely confirmed what everyone expected. It wasn’t shocking, and it was easy for the media to be blase about it. The conservative rulings seemed more important, to a certain extent, because far-right judges did something shocking, so news outlets responded accordingly.

This doesn’t quite explain why the Washington Post couldn’t bother to run a single article — not one — about the Kessler ruling, even after it was decided in Washington, about a mile from the Post‘s office building, but Ezra’s larger point is well taken.

I’d add, though, that there are implications associated with this. The news-consuming public doesn’t necessarily follow the details of these legal developments, and Americans find important what the media tells them is important. With that in mind, it seems very likely the public has been left with the impression that the health care law is legally dubious and struggling badly in the courts because that’s what news organizations have told them to believe.

Greg Sargent recently explained the broader implications.

You could argue that if the Supreme Court will ultimately decide the fate of the law in any case, it doesn’t matter much if the public has a distorted picture of its legal predicament. But of course this does matter, because it’s unfolding in a political context. If people have an exaggerated sense of the law’s alleged unconstitutionality, it could contribute to the law’s unpopularity, which could in turn make the push for partial repeal or defunding of the law easier. That in turn could make it more likely that the law’s implementation could grow more chaotic. That could impact real people, and it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that it could impact the law’s fate before the highest court.

Again, it’s not hard to see why decisions against the Affordable Care Act are deemed more newsworthy. But it’s still unfortunate that the public is being left with a highly-distorted impression of what’s happening.