WaPo ombudsman points to ‘missing ingredient’

WAPO OMBUDSMAN POINTS TO ‘MISSING INGREDIENT’…. It’s a familiar problem. During a presidential campaign, reporters covering the candidates will invariably cover the horse race and ignore the substance. If a campaign unveils a national security policy, for example, coverage will focus on “what it means” — whether the policy will position the candidate as “tough,” whether it addresses a problem that’s emerged in the polls, etc. — not whether the policy is any good.

Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman, noted the same problem with coverage of the health care debate. He pointed to some quality journalism on the subject, before conceding the larger trend. Readers, Alexander explained, “want primers, not prognostications. And they’re craving stories on what it means for ordinary folks and their families.”

In my examination of roughly 80 A-section stories on health-care reform since July 1, all but about a dozen focused on political maneuvering or protests. The Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism had a similar finding. Its recent month-long review of Post front pages found 72 percent of health-care stories were about politics, process or protests.

“The politics has been covered, but all of this is flying totally over the heads of people,” said Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, who has been tracking coverage by The Post and other news organizations. “They have not known from Day One what this was about.”

It’s not for lack of interest. About 45 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press recently said they have been following the health-care story more closely than any other.

But nearly half of those surveyed this month in a nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they are “confused” about reform plans.

Kaiser’s president and CEO, Drew Altman, worries that the media have devoted too much attention to “accusation and refutation” stories instead of focusing on the “core questions about health-care reform that the public wants answered.”

By “gravitating toward controversies” such as the recent boisterous town hall meetings on health care, he said, the media may “unwittingly” be allowing coverage to be shaped by evocative rhetoric and images.

I’m not sure if “unwittingly” is the right word here. For the media in general, I think there’s a reliance on horse-race and he-said-she-said journalism because it’s easy — and because all of their colleagues and competitors are doing the same thing.

It leads to a superficiality that contributes to public confusion.