What is the media’s role in covering health care reform properly? A panel at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) suggested that, even though Congress finally has passed overhaul legislation, there is a continuing need to cut through political spin to explain to the public how the new system will work.

“Covering Health Care Reform in the Digital Age,” an April 5 discussion co-sponsored by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, featured perspectives from Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at HKS and the Harvard School of Public Health; Timothy Johnson, physician and medical editor at ABC News; Ezra Klein, blogger on economic and domestic policy for Washingtonpost.com and columnist for Newsweek magazine; and Julie Rovner, health policy correspondent for National Public Radio.

Blendon emphasized the importance of the media in the health care debate, and said that journalism is “crucial to the nation’s understanding how this policy works.”

Rovner agreed that although the “horse race is over” and the health care bill has been passed, there is still an “interim step” before implementation, which is to “explain to the confused public what’s in the law and how they might be affected by it.” She explained that in reporting on the health care debate, there was a “struggle to put policy above politics.” Johnson agreed that the policy vs. politics debate was difficult, and while ABC News had chosen to focus on the political aspect of the story, he believed the focus should have been on policy.

The “bad news,” Klein said, is that “the media is terrible at doing what it needs to do,” but the good news is that “it doesn’t really matter.” He saw the political structure that existed prior to the bill’s passage as having the greatest influence on its success, and he expressed skepticism about how large a role health reform will play in the mid-term elections.

But Blendon said the wide political gaps between the parties will force health care to remain the key election issue.

To illustrate the complications of the health care bill, Klein said he has “made charts and graphs — we’ve made so many graphs,” yet the public still seems vastly unaware of the bill’s complexities.

While new media technology provides “more resources than ever” for citizens to get information about health care legislation, politics, rather than education, still drives the debate. Johnson said he was appalled at the lack of knowledge among intelligent citizens on aspects of the reform legislation. Rovner cited an example of a colleague reporting on a tea party protest meeting who called her to verify what turned out to be wildly inaccurate rumors being passed around as truth.

Johnson said he sees “battles yet to come” that will deal with the unavoidable issue of controlling costs. “But no one wants to talk about that aspect of it,” he said.

The event was co-sponsored by the Health Policy Professional Interest Council and the Communications & Media Professional Interest Council as part of the Kennedy School’s Public Service Week.

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