This fall, as the growing stack of policy cancellations was giving the lie to Obama's ill-considered "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it" promise, newspaper editors across the country were simultaneously barking at reporters to dig up Obamacare horror stories, and fast.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Yamil Berard came through with some particularly juicy ones, leading with the story of a 26-year-old multiple sclerosis patient from Arlington named Whitney Johnson. Her plan was ending on January 1, and she hadn't been able to sign up for insurance.
The story was well-read. Johnson was invited to appear on Sean Hannity's radio show. House speaker John Boehner tweeted a link to his followers.
What the story didn't say was that Johnson, along with two of the other three Obamacare victims included in Berard's story, were affiliated with the Tea Party, a fact that only came to light when blogger Maggie Mahar did some due diligence. Over the weekend, she penned a takedown of the Star-Telegram piece for healthcare.org, debunking Johnson's claims about the cost of prospective insurance plans, which were higher than would be allowed under the healthcare law, pointing out that the others featured in the story would have paid less or about the same for plans obtained through the healthcare marketplace, and generally implying that the paper and its editors were guilty of journalistic malfeasance.
This morning comes Star-Telegram Editor Jim Witt's official response: a mea culpa, teased on the front page, admitting that the paper "left out key information" from the story.
Witt doesn't go so far as to issue a retraction. He says the anecdotes included in Berard's piece are accurate and that she wasn't seeking out Tea Partiers. Nevertheless, Witt writes:
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 you mother says she loves you, check it out."
There's no reason to disbelieve Witt's explanation that this was unintentional. Still, it stands a reminder that in journalism, as in life, a bit of cursory googling can save a lot of headaches.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.