As misinformation becomes a central issue in the health care debate, we're seeing some excellent examples of how news organizations should handle reporting on deceptive claims, but they're largely exceptions to the rule.
On the positive side, Kate Snow of ABC News deserves credit for a television report in which she correctly describes the "death panel" myth as "misinformation" and calls out Betsy McCaughey as the source of the claim -- an essential part of the shaming strategy I've advocated:
The online version of her story is also compelling. Snow and her co-authors make sure to attribute their debunking to "experts" and "doctors" and go out of their way to note that even Republican health experts agree that the claim is false. Here's how the story begins:
Experts Debunk Health Bill's 'Death Panel' Rule
Doctors Agree Health Bill Has No 'Death Panel' Requirement for the Elderly
Accusations that the health care reform bill now pending in the House of Representatives would use "death panels" to deny care to sick seniors and children with birth defects have taken center stage in the health care debate, giving the Obama administration even more of an uphill climb in getting the measures enacted into law.
But health care experts -- even those who do not support the version of the health care reform bill now being discussed -- note that these accusations are shocking, inflammatory and incorrect.
Unfortunately, many other journalists are failing miserably. A Los Angeles Times story by Christi Parsons offers an especially postmodern take on the debate -- an approach signaled by a headline stating that "'reality' is in dispute." (When journalists are reduced to putting the idea of reality in scare quotes, we're all doomed.) In the excerpt below I have highlighted some key passages in which Parsons refrains from arbitrating between competing factual claims and instead presents the issue in the a "he said," "she said" format:
President Obama and his allies in the healthcare debate began moving more forcefully Monday to rebut what they said was "misinformation" spread by opponents of the legislation and to spotlight the disruptive nature of protests at town halls held by lawmakers.
...A new healthcare "reality check" section of the White House website -- at www. whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/ -- is patterned after the Obama campaign website's "fight the smears" feature confronting whispers about the then-presidential candidate.
In one video, a top administration aide says the claim that the proposals encourage euthanasia is a "malicious myth."
...Melody Barnes, head of Obama's domestic policy council, hosts the White House online video disputing the contention that the healthcare overhaul would encourage senior citizens to commit suicide.
...The euthanasia claim stems from a provision to allow -- not require -- seniors on Medicare to consult a doctor about living wills and directives for care.
Sarah Palin posted a note Friday on Facebook that suggested Democrats' plan would lead to the rationing of healthcare.
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of healthcare," said Alaska's former governor, a Republican. "Such a system is downright evil."
Barnes does not specifically mention the posting, but she disputes the suggestion that government bureaucrats would decide who got healthcare and who didn't.
Parsons does briefly clarify that end of life consultations would not be required, but otherwise fails to make clear that the euthanasia myth and the Palin "death panel" quote are baseless. (The Washington Post's coverage of President Obama's New Hampshire town hall meeting yesterday took a similar approach.)
Other outlets seem to vacillate in their willingness to report that claims are false or misleading. For instance, the New York Times wrote on Monday that the euthanasia myth "appear[s] to be unfounded" -- language that was already far too hedged -- and then retreated further yesterday in a story calling such claims "questionable." This is part of a general pathology in which reporters continue to treat misleading claims as plausible even after their own newspapers have debunked them in previous stories.
In short, isolated examples of excellent fact-checking are once again being swamped by waves of lame "he said," "she said" coverage. It's a sadly predictable outcome.
Update 8/12 9:09 PM -- Parsons and Janet Hook were more clear in debunking the "death panel" myth as an "outright falsehood" in today's LAT report on the health care debate:
Based on the persistence of nagging questions, and of at least one outright falsehood, Democrats have a tough road ahead.
Obama took an easy shot Tuesday at correcting the record, addressing former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's claim that Obama's plan would create "death panels" to decide who gets to live and die. There are no such measures in any of the bills under consideration.
"This arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills," Obama said. "Somehow it's gotten spun into this idea of death panels."
Laughing off the assertion, he said: "Um, I am not in favor of that. I want to clear the air."