Jim Witt

Star-Telegram report on Affordable Care Act left out key information

I enjoy when I get to write about great things the Star-Telegram does, but unfortunately this isn’t going to be one of those times.

The motto at the top of our editorial page is “Earning the People’s Trust Daily.” We take that trust seriously. Our credibility as a news organization is the most valuable thing we possess.

And sometimes that means owning up when we’ve made a mistake. That’s why unlike most newspapers, which usually run their corrections on Page 2A or another anchored spot inside the paper, we run our corrections where the mistake happened.

We even sometimes run the correction in a spot more prominent than the place the mistake happened — our corrections always run on the front page of the section where the mistake was made.

If we made a mistake on Page One, that’s where the correction runs. If we made the mistake on a page inside the Tarrant & Texas section, the correction goes on the front of the section.

This weekend a national healthcare blogger accused the Star-Telegram of leaving out pertinent information in a story about the trouble people were having getting insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

In effect, she suggested we slanted the story to make sure it put the president’s healthcare plan in a bad light.

That’s not true. We stand behind the details we presented in the story, although I agree there are things we should have done to bring the story up to our standards.

The story by Yamil Berard, an award-winning veteran reporter at the Star-Telegram, ran Nov. 24 and focused on four people — three in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and one from Lubbock — who all professed to be having trouble finding affordable healthcare insurance under Obamacare.

The reporter found the people through a mixture of insurance brokers and sources she knew from other healthcare stories she had written, not through the Tea Party as the blogger insinuated.

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Conservative national radio show host Sean Hannity saw the story and had one of the women we wrote about on his show in the next few days, and House Speaker John Boehner tweeted the story to his followers.

Blogger Maggie Mahar writes for healthinsurance.org, and in a two-part post over this past weekend she criticized the Star-Telegram for doing what she considered a poor job of fact-checking the story before publication.

Specifically, Mahar said her research showed that claims the people made concerning their efforts to get affordable insurance were exaggerated and that a Google search revealed that three of the four people quoted in the story as “losers” under Obamacare were all Tea Party members and more likely to be predisposed to find fault with the Affordable Care Act.

One of the women quoted in the story, Whitney Johnson, told us Monday that, although she is not a member of the Tea Party, her mother is the founder of the Parker County Tea Party chapter. Johnson also wrote a letter to the Concerned Women For America that appeared on the Tea Party website, in which she makes her feelings about the Affordable Care Act pretty clear.

Johnson later found affordable insurance at the healthcare website with the help of a Fort Worth broker. Tea Party members, of course, need insurance just like members of other political parties.

Knowing the background of the person quoted can give readers important clues about someone’s motives, but you didn’t learn that from reading our story, because we neglected to investigate the background of the people we quoted. That’s something you learn to do in Journalism 101. I remember my old professor saying “If your mother says she loves you check it out.”

Although Mahar styles herself as an unbiased reporter, it’s clear from reading her posts at healthinsurance.org that she’s got a pro-Obamacare point-of-view, which is fine.

Although I believe she overemphasized some aspects to make it appear that we were part of a conspiracy to paint the Affordable Care Act in a negative light, her main point hit the mark — we did not do our job completely and therefore let our readers down.

When the story ran, the media were full of stories detailing the myriad problems with the website being used to sign up, so this story didn’t strike the reporter’s editor, Steve Kaskovich, as out of the ordinary. We didn’t have our radar turned on strong enough to spot the hole.

The Star-Telegram has run dozens of stories about Obamacare over the past few months.

On Oct. 24, we ran a story by Star-Telegram reporter Jim Fuquay headlined “A firsthand encounter with the nation's frustration: One determined reporter tries to sign up for healthcare,” about the trials and tribulations he had with navigating the website.

On Nov. 2, business columnist Teresa McUsic wrote a piece for us headlined “Don’t Let Horror Stories Scare You Away.”

McUsic wrote that “while government officials apologized profusely to Congress this week for the problems with signing up on the healthcare marketplace website, I had no problems creating an account and looking over the plan options.

“Maybe I should repeat that. No problems.”

And our intention was always to follow up on efforts by local residents to enroll for Obamacare on the federal website or by phone. That story is in the works.

Overall, I believe the Star-Telegram has done a good job of educating readers about the good and the bad of Obamacare — but not in this instance.

I apologize for that and promise we’ll do better going forward.

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