Early ACA Local News Coverage Focused on Politics, Not Health

By February 22, 2017
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Associate Professor Sarah Gollust

When the Affordable Care Act rolled out in 2014, most Americans turned to their community’s local television news for consumer information on the transformative law. A new study led by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) shows that half of the stories broadcast during that period were politically tinged — and rarely offered practical details on how the initiative worked or benefited viewers.

The study — published in the American Journal of Public Health —  was done in partnership with Wesleyan University and analyzed 1,569 local evening news stories airing between Oct. 1, 2013 and April 19, 2014.

According to lead author and SPH Associate Professor Sarah Gollust, the researchers had expected to see stories that featured insightful explanations from sources such as doctors, health insurance providers, and health advocates.

“We found that a majority of information sources cited were politicians,” says Gollust. “The news media covered the ACA as a highly politicized law.”

While some stories did provide some details on how to enroll in the program, more of the news segments focused on problems people faced with signing up for coverage on the websites or the numbers of people who did enroll.

“Such stories don’t help any particular group of people and orient viewers instead on who’s winning and who’s losing from a political perspective,” says Gollust.

When it came to actually reporting on the ACA’s benefits, the coverage was very limited as well.

Two of the law’s most powerful elements — Medicaid expansion and health insurance subsidies — were discussed in less than 10 percent of stories.

Gollust and the researchers said the findings help explain why the law’s fate is in jeopardy: local televisions news stations covered the ACA as though it were a political campaign, thus limiting the public’s understanding of how the law could help them, while at the same time, increasing perceptions of the law’s political elements.