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Health Care Coverage Gets Mixed Reviews : Journalism: Study of major newspapers says that while reports have generally been unbiased, they often ignore reform's effects on average person.


WASHINGTON — The nation's major newspapers have generally been unbiased in the early stages of their health care reform coverage, but they have often cast the debate as a battle between competing business and political interests, largely ignoring the potential effect on average people and on quality of care, according to a study released Friday.

Of 571 stories in five of the nation's largest newspapers over a four-month period, only three focused on how the Clinton Administration's health care reform plan might affect quality of care, the study said.

Only eight stories explored the possibility that a patient's choice of physicians might be limited, it added.

In all, the study found that during the four months, only 69 stories, or 12%, dealt with the potential impact of health care reform on people and families.

The findings are among the first in a long-term study of the media's performance in informing the public about health care reform--an initiative the press has called the biggest potential domestic policy change since President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal 60 years ago.

The study showed that 41% of the stories, or more than 230, focused on the Administration plan's impact on insurance companies, hospitals, bureaucracies and pharmaceutical companies.

Twenty-three percent of the stories focused on the political ramifications of health care reform: whether the Administration was winning or losing vis-a-vis the Republicans, other members of Congress or lobbying groups, as well as each group's strategies.

Even doctors and nurses, presumably interested parties in the debate, have received a relatively small amount of media attention. Only about 11% of the stories, about 60, have focused on how the plan will affect doctors and nurses, the study said.

Another 12% of the stories speculated on the impact of health care reform on the economy.

The study is sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., and was conducted by Times Mirror Center for People and the Press and the Columbia Journalism Review.

The foundation has no formal ties to Kaiser Industries or Kaiser Permanente health services but was started years ago with Kaiser family money.

"For those media watchers who were sure that media coverage would be cynical and slanted, there is good news in the finding that the vast majority of the stories were judged to be objective and fair," said foundation President Drew E. Altman.

"The real test is to come," he said, noting that to a degree, politics and lobbying is "what there has been to cover."

"But there is a real question in the future of whether the media will care about the average people or the political horse race," he said.

"The story for the first six weeks was behind the doors of the White House, so it is not surprising that this is where the reporting was," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press, which is owned by Times Mirror, the parent company of The Times.

In its first phase, the study analyzed stories appearing between April 1 and July 31 in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Content analyses such as this study always involve some element of subjective judgment and thus are open to some interpretation.

The study found that coverage of the plan became progressively more critical of the Administration over time, although the coverage on balance was deemed neutral by Times Mirror researchers.

To the extent that the stories were slanted or offered predictions on the prospects of reform, however, 21% were pessimistic and 7% were optimistic.

As they related to President Clinton directly, 27% of the stories were critical while 12% were complimentary. Coverage of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who heads the Administration's health care reform task force, was more evenly divided: 21% negative, 19% positive, the rest neutral.

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