The panelists in the media plenary at last week’s National Health Policy Conference rounded back to a theme we have covered previously (here and here)—evidence matters in the policy discussion. Of course, if you’re reading this blog, that’s not news to you. But what the panelists explained was that evidence matters to journalists, policymakers, and even the general public, and that there’s an audience for your work as long as you know how and when to share it. Moderator Trudy Lieberman opened the conversation with the question, “Does the media have a role in health policy?” Panelists Austin Frakt, Ezra Klein, and Merrill Goozner began the session by describing the relationship between the media and policymakers as “confusing,” “incestuous,” and “tidal.” They all agreed that when it comes to policy reporting, there is a big problem when determining newsworthiness. Goozner stated that reporters in the field have very little control about how to craft the message, and often end up being manipulated into reporting things that are irrelevant just because they’re new. Frakt agreed, saying that we are witnessing a lot of eminence-based reporting rather than evidence-based reporting. Klein expanded on the issue, explaining that despite their complexity and importance, some of the key elements of reform—subsidies, exchanges, regulated insurance markets—don’t get enough coverage because nothing “new” is really happening. He said that the audience needs explanation and repetition to understand how these things work. If you caught Don Berwick’s exit interview with the Association of Health Care Journalists, then this call for more explanatory and resource reporting sounds familiar. When describing his overall impression of the media’s coverage of CMS and the health reform discussion, Berwick stated that the amount of in-depth coverage was lacking:

“As we were dealing with very, very complex issues, which is standard for CMS, and the Affordable Care Act, I found the majority of the reports, as opposed to the interviews, shallow. There weren’t a sufficient number of longer in-depth analyses of what really was going on and what were the pros and cons of the choices the government, and our nation, are making,” he said.
The overall problem the panelists observed is that polarization sets the terms of the debate, which can be dangerous. With so much reporting focused on what people might read versus what people need to know, there’s a real under-served market for policy explanation. They agreed that evidence matters and that people want better reporting to be able to understand the issues. And better reporting means translating evidence in a compelling and interesting way to engage people in the conversation. Klein said that if we can’t take something as vitally important as personal health care and explain it in a way that people understand, then we can’t blame people for not being interested in policy or research. That’s a failure on our part as the translators—not theirs.
“The joy of my career and the happiest thing I’ve learned is that people want to know about this stuff. We completely underestimate them and we do it all the time,” said Klein. “If you explain policy to people, they’ll stick around and hear it.”
Goozner also said that he thinks there’s a good audience for policy discussion, and therefore, it’s important for those in possession of relevant evidence to contribute. Too many people have good information that’s not being shared, he said, and encouraged research and policy professionals to engage in the conversation directly by posting comments, blogging, and contacting reporters. Klein agreed, saying he would love to hear from experts with relevant research. That advice is in keeping with a point we’ve made here previously: relying on peer-review publication alone is not, in and of itself, an effective dissemination or translation strategy.  As Frakt explained in the session, it’s important to watch the debate to look for opportunities where your work is relevant rather than relying on journals and press releases.
“The evidence doesn’t have to be new, you just have to bring it to light at the right time,” he said.
Overall, the panel covered a wide range of issues related to the policy discussion around health reform, and we were encouraged to hear that there’s a thirst for evidence to inform the debate. For resources on how to translate your work for new audiences, view the following on-demand webinars in our professional development catalogue: Connect with the Panelists: Austin Frakt, The Incidental Economist and Boston University Blog | Twitter Ezra Klein, The Washington Post Blog | Twitter  Merrill Goozner, The Fiscal Times and GoozNews Blog | Twitter Trudy Lieberman, Columbia Journalism Review Blog | Twitter