A tweet from my friend Laura Beil, an AHCJ member and fine health/science writer, got my attention:
The Dallas columnist, Steve Blow, wrote, “I recently urged a wait-and-see attitude on the health care reform law. Its effects, good or bad, should be obvious soon enough.”
Then a reader sent him U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions’ weekly newsletter.
On first reading, Blow found the five bullet points alarming. “But on a second reading,” he wrote. “I began to wonder if there wasn’t another side of the story to be heard.”
Blow sent Sessions’ statements to Len Nichols, Ph.D., a professor of health policy at George Mason University and a leading expert on health care reform. Blow noted that Nichols is a supporter of the law. (Conflict of interest disclosure: I worked for Nichols a few years back, when I was blogging/writing at a think tank. And although in that sense it would have been nice if Blow had called another highly quotable health care economist, the point here is about what we can learn about Blow’s reporting, not Nichols’ response.)
Nichols looked at Sessions’ bullet points and called them a blatant distortion of statistics – or as he put it “lies.” Sessions, in Nichols’ view, had made “numbers that may be technically true seem as if they threaten the solvency of the country.”
Blow then went through Session’s five bullet points with Nichols. One thing he learned: the Republican legislator had taken a single year of statistics – such as the decline of employer-sponsored insurance – and blamed it on the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the trend has been going on for years and years under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Blow also discovered that Sessions had cherry picked data – citing one questionable study with a conclusion unfavorable to the health reform law, without noting either conflicting studies or the widely reported criticisms of that study.
Blow went back to Sessions’ office and asked for the source of his data. He was told it was taken from another GOP legislator’s newsletter.
Yes, Blow is a columnist and a columnist has more leeway than a straight news reporter, particularly stylistically. But facts are facts, and reporters can (and should) check them. In a perfect world, and in a news story not a column, it wouldn’t have just been one economist’s take down (Nichols) – it would have been more broadly sourced. But there are lessons for reporters. Ask questions about data – and you don’t have to be a statistical whiz kid to do so. Look at the larger trends – if X happened this year, and X happened for 10 or 20 or 30 other years, it’s probably not really because of “Obamacare,” particularly since most of the Affordable Care Act isn’t even in effect yet. Ask about the validity of a study cited. In this case, a quick Google search could have documented the questions that have arisen about this study Sessions cited.