A Quick Example of Bias Infecting ACA News

February 12th, 2014 · 3 Comments · health care reform, journalism

By Denise Tessier

Part of the blame for the Albuquerque Journal’s perceived overall conservative bias comes from the mixing of opinion with news. This is a not problem that lies in the work of its staff reporters, but in its use of national Associated Press stories that increasingly seem infected with opinion. The problem, too, is that the Journal runs these stories without the addition of an “analysis” label or, in the alternative,  judicious editing.

My colleague Arthur Alpert has rightly noted in past posts  that one of the regular AP offenders in this category is Washington-based reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, whose work regularly runs in the Albuquerque Journal as the official word on the Affordable Care Act.

Late last month, the Journal ran at the bottom of A3 the first few paragraphs of an Alonso-Zaldivar piece that offers an opportunity to illustrate quickly the infection of straight news by overreaching editorial comment.

Here’s the opening sentence on the piece (no link available via the Journal online):

Maybe the health care law was about wealth transfer, after all.

The reporter used the word “maybe” as a qualifier to hedge on his claim. But where does this “maybe” even come from, when the story itself – about new research on how health insurance costs affect the incomes of Americans – quoted the researchers as saying wealth distribution was not the intention of the ACA?

In fact, later in the same story, even right-of-center ACA foes were quoted as saying wealth transfer was not the intent.

Yet Alonso-Zaldivar led with “Maybe the health care law was about wealth transfer, after all.” And Journal editors did not cut it.

Here is how the story would have read if they had cut that lead sentence and if the story had started with the second sentence:

New research shows that the Affordable Care Act will significantly boost the economic fortunes of those in the bottom one-fifth of the income ladder while slightly reducing average incomes on the rungs above.

Economists at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy center, found an average increase of about 6 percent in the incomes of the poorest 20 percent of the United States, meaning those making below approximately $20,600 a year.

The study used a broad definition of income that counts the value of health insurance, which is not normally measured by Census Bureau income statistics.

Changing the distribution of incomes was not a stated objective of the health care law, co-authors Henry Aaron and Gary Burtless wrote. “Nonetheless, the ACA may do more to change the income distribution than any other recently enacted law.”

“This is certainly a very big deal for the income distribution of the United States,” Burtless said. “If you are raising the incomes of the people in the bottom fifth by 6 percent, then we are talking about a big change.”

A leading economic adviser to Republicans said he agrees with the broad findings.

“This was always portrayed as a health reform, not a big redistribution policy, but it turns out they are the same thing,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a center-right public policy institute.

That is what a straight news story looks like.

According to the story, income redistribution is an unintended consequence of the ACA. But the reporter claimed in the first sentence that income redistribution might have been the point of the law.

By pronouncing at the outset that wealth transfer might have been the purpose of the ACA, he is making a statement as simplistic as one that claims the ACA is mere socialist plot.

There was a time when the AP was considered the most trustworthy wire news service. It played the news straight and even erred on the side of caution when it came to sensational stories. In the 1970s, for example, when it competed with United Press International, it was not uncommon for AP and UPI stories to conflict when it came to body counts – whether it was a story about war, accidents or natural disasters. If the counts differed, usually the AP had the lower figure, sticking to numbers it could independently confirm.

National AP stories no longer have that reputation, and the Journal should take notice.

Copy editors are an integral part of any respectable news organization. The Journal should use its own copy editors to ensure, not just the credibility of staff-generated stories, but all stories – including those emanating from the once venerated AP.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Thomas

    The news today is much like a divorce. In a divorce there are three sides to every story…his side, her side, and what actually happened. So it is with the news today…the left view, the right view, and unfortunately, rarely an objective portrayal of what actually is happening.

  • Thomas

    The news today is much like a divorce. In a divorce there are three sides to every story…his side, her side, and what actually happened. So it is with the news today…the left view, the right view, and unfortunately, rarely an objective portrayal of what actually is happening.

  • Rob

    I to have noticed many Zaldivar articles in the AP.
    All of his pieces are about the ACA and is clearly bias reporting….with provacative and misleading opening statements. I thought the AP was the last place i could go for non bias fact base reporting… I was wrong!!!

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