Jamieson Says TV News Poorly Reports on Health Care Reform By Steve Libowitz and Andy Blumberg Last month, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania went to the School of Hygiene and Public Health to pose the question of how well the media is helping to shape public opinion about health care opinion. The short answer: not very well at all. Kathleen Hall Jamieson was the keynote speaker at the school's Health Communication Day, an annual event held to present issues of interest to students and professionals who specialize in communicating public health information. "The health care reform debate took the paradigms of how we elect political candidates and overlayed them on how we debate public policy," Dr. Jamieson said. To illustrate her argument, Dr. Jamieson used statistics gathered by advertising monitors who watched and listened to hundreds of hours of media messages. She demonstrated the disparity in coverage between divisiveness and substance. "What was presented on television as pure coverage was really a series of attacks and counterattacks," she said. "The media did not let the substance of the issue get through." There was never additional commentary on media stories, Dr. Jamieson said, leaving the public wondering which side of the debate was truthful and accurate. The result was an increasing level of public cynicism toward the media as the health care debate unfolded. Much blame, Dr. Jamieson said, could be leveled at the so-called "Harry and Louise" ads, which presented what was supposed to be a typical American couple who did not support the president's reform proposals. The problem, she said, is that most Americans never viewed the commercials as television advertisements. Instead, they were exposed to excerpts of them on newscasts, which reported on legislators' concerns about the negative effects the ads had on public opinion. Dr. Jamieson said that this kind of media coverage had significant impact on public opinion, supporting her claim with an analysis of polls taken in which people were asked to express their preference for one of the various health care reform plans. When plans were mentioned by name, "The Clinton Plan" was, for the most part, received negatively. However, Dr. Jamieson noted, when the elements of the plans were described without names attached, participants wanted the Clinton administration proposal. Ultimately the health care debate faltered and finally died, Dr. Jamieson said, under the weight of the "attack-counter- attack" media filter. "We are now conducting public policy debates in a way that the electorate will not understand," she said. "This makes your job that much harder and the job of media critics that much more important.
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