How health care rulings are covered

Regular readers may recall an item from February, in which I compared coverage of health care court rulings from several major media outlets. Given yesterday’s developments, it’s time to revisit the subject.

To briefly review, there were five major lower-court rulings that evaluated the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act on the merits, three sided with the Obama administration and two sided with ACA opponents. As I documented, rulings in support of the law generally received little to no attention from the Washington Post, New York Times, Politico, and the Associated Press, while rulings against the law were literally treated as front-page news.

Indeed, it wasn’t even close. In every instance, conservative rulings received more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

Yesterday’s ruling was the most important to date — it was the first ruling from a federal appeals court bench — and even had the added hook of having Republican-appointed judges siding with the Obama administration. Surely this is front-page news, right?

Wrong. Here’s the tale of the tape, putting yesterday’s coverage in the larger context of the other cases:

Washington Post
* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A5, 1053 words
* 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
* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A15, 853 words
* 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
* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 832 words
* 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
* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 940 words
* 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

The discrepancy is overwhelming. There are, to be sure, some possible explanations for this, but they’re not especially persuasive.

One could argue that yesterday was a busy news day, and that the ruling got crowded out by other newsworthy developments. Perhaps. But if the 6th Circuit had gone the other way, would the NYT‘s story by on page A15 or on page A1?

One could also argue that rulings upholding the law maintain the status quo, which almost by definition, makes them less noteworthy. This is more compelling, but 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 — rulings the right likes get trumpeted; rulings the left likes get downplayed.

Several months ago, Greg Sargent explained the broader implications of this very well.

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.