Headlines distort CBO report on Obamacare

The reaction to a Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday demonstrated how easily politicians are able to game the media system.

The CBO, a respected source of nonpartisan data, found that the Affordable Care Act would lead to the disappearance of more than 2 million jobs — nearly all of them because people will choose to stop working or cut back on their hours now that their health insurance is no longer dependent on their continued employment. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf put it this way:

I want to emphasize that that reduction doesn’t mean that that many people precisely will choose to leave the labor force. We think that some people will chose to work fewer hours. Other people will choose to leave the labor force.

Of course, that didn’t stop Republican opponents from claiming that the CBO report proves the ACA is a job-killer. And why not? The media are so quick to go along. Let’s consider that this is Elmendorf’s report, and he said at a news conference precisely what it meant. Yet the very NPR story in which his remarks are quoted is headlined “Is Obamacare A Job Killer? New Estimates Suggest It Might Be.” Gah.

This morning I looked at the front pages of four major dailies. Here’s how they stack up, in order of disingenuousness.

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1. The Boston Globe. “Health law projected to put a dent in workforce; GOP calls analysis proof of act’s failings.” The clear impression is that people are going to lose their jobs because of the ACA. If you would like to believe that, go right ahead — but it’s not what the CBO said. The Globe headline is slapped atop a New York Times story (below) that isn’t nearly that bad.

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2. The New York Times. “Health Care Law Projected to Cut the Labor Force; Choosing Not to Work; G.O.P. Seizes On Data — Drop May Equal 2.5 Million Jobs.” Whew! Try saying it all without taking a breath. The Times’ headlines is slightly better than the Globe’s: the second deck, “Choosing Not to Work,” gets at the gist of the CBO report. But the rest of it makes it sound like Tuesday was a very bad day for the ACA. You’ve got to read the story to find out what’s really going on.

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3. The Washington Post. “New fuel for the health-law fight; CBO: More will quit jobs, cut hours; Estimates revive debate over economic effects.” Not bad. The impression given by the headline is that the fight is over the economic effect of people quitting their jobs. Not quite right, but we’re getting closer. Here’s the story.

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4. The Wall Street Journal. “Health Law to Cut Into Labor Force; Report Forecasts More People Will Opt to Work Less as They Seek Coverage Through Affordable Care Act.” Folks, we have a winner — a headline that accurately reflects what the CBO actually said. Good story, too. (To get around the Journal’s paywall, enter the headline at Google News. Don’t worry. Rupert knows about it and says it’s OK.)

The problem with deceptive or incomplete headlines is that few people get past them or the partisan attacks they reflect. What House Speaker John Boehner (quoted in the Times story) said is simply flat-out wrong: “The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse.”

As U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., put it in a conversation with reporters (also quoted in the Times): “You guys are going to politicize it no matter what happens.”

Journalists need to resist the urge.

Headline images via the Newseum’s “Today’s Front Pages.”

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4 thoughts on “Headlines distort CBO report on Obamacare

  1. Dave Brooks

    The real lesson: Six-column heds are usually better than 1- or 2-column heds – as every desker knows all too well. (“Bus plunge” wasn’t invented for 6-column heds)

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