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A few weeks ago, I spotted a link to something called deathpanels.org getting passed around Twitter, and quickly traced its origin to Matt Thompson, Knight Foundation interim online community manager and general champion of contextual journalism. (Note: deathpanels.org is an independent project of Matt’s, and not affiliated with the Knight Foundation.)

Remembering a conversation that I had with Matt and others at a recent conference, I realized the idea had been brewing for some time.

A few minutes after I looked at the site for the first time, I called up Matt to talk about the idea.

Listen to our conversation

The full transcript of our conversation

Ryan Sholin: This is Ryan Sholin and I’m here with Matt Thompson. Matt do you want to introduce yourself?

Matt Thompson: Sure, once again, Matt Thompson, I’m an online journalist, and the interim online community manager for the Knight Foundation.

RS: Cool, so I, within the last 10 minutes, saw a tweet about something called deathpanels.org, and it looked scary. But Matt and Howard Weaver were talking about it, and I know what both of them are interested in, so I clicked through and I was not disappointed. And I discovered, before I even got to the “about this site“ link that explains that Matt was behind it, I fired up Terminal, did a quick whois, and I knew that it was Matt, but I could have just kept clicking and I would have found out. Matt, do you want to explain what deathpanels.org is and why you just put it up and what it’s for?

MT: Sure, so deathpanels.org is an expose behind the disturbing details that underpin the current health reform process. And in truth, it’s about the disturbing details of the U.S. healthcare system that make health reform necessary.

RS: So, when I open up this site, I get a big scary red thing with like a gothic tattoo sort of Death Panels and a skull behind it. This seems kind of sensational almost, like you’re just trying to get me to click through to read the disturbing details.

MT: Right, well, it’s targeted, when you come to the site, the whole kind of tongue-in-cheek goal is that you won’t know that this is by someone who is very sympathetic to the cause of healthcare reform. But it is playing up the total, I mean the whole “death panels” element of it, the ludicrous “I will not have my grandmother paraded before a death panel” nature of the debate around healthcare right now. I want to play on that element of fear and panic and paranoia to get people to what I hope is actually a fairly sober and, well, friendly, accessible overview of the problems in the current system, what Congress is doing about them, and what are some other good resources to look at for finding our more information about health reform.

RS: So you mentioned more resources. As soon as I click on the disturbing details, and you kind of give it away in the URL because it’s “/the-problem” so you’re presenting an issue. And the first thing that I see is that there’s a lot of links. Can you talk a little bit about why you did that and what that’s for?

MT: Yes. Basically my whole goal in creating a site like this is to bring some context to the issue of healthcare reform.

It’s difficult — you’d be surprised that there are just not that many places on the Web that sum up the basic, “these are what the problems are,” “these are what some of the proposals for fixing those problems”; that information, [is] sort of buried in a lot of different places around the Web. That said, there are a lot of places around the Web that are doing a great job of tackling tiny pieces of that larger question: what are the problems and how are we trying to fix them?

And so,when you come to this site, after you click on the disturbing details about health care reform, the first thing that you see is a page that sort of summarizes the three overarching basic problems of the U.S. healthcare system, with links to different sources. And these are sources that are in most cases as non-partisan as I can find — think tanks, non-partisan institutions and what-have-you, that look at different aspects of the U.S. healthcare system and why it’s so lame.

RS: And then the next page we get to is the proposals, right, this is how we’re going to fix the problem, and it’s flagged as “what Congress wants to do” about health care.

MT: Yes. This was a page, actually, when I started creating this Web site on Tuesday night [August 11, 2009], I thought that a lot of this, that I’d be able to find all this in a pretty digestible form, or maybe in a few different links, or I’d just be able to say, “here’s the picture, go nuts.” But I didn’t find anything that sort of summed up the common proposals in a sort of human-accessible fashion. And so I ended up just doing that to the best of my ability: taking the main components of all the different pieces of health care legislation that are winding their way through Congress and summarizing them, with, again, supporting links to different sources, to the best sources that I could find, explaining what each proposal is, why it could help, and what some of the pros and cons might be.

RS: And you’ve got, especially, these three criteria: “Does it improve effectiveness, does it control cost, and does it increase access” and then some checkboxes below that. And it certainly makes it clear that there seems to be one choice out there that does all three of those things.

MT: Right, and this is sort of an info design thing that might be a little misleading in fact. These different proposals, even if one gets at all three goals of health reform — improving effectiveness, bringing costs under control, bringing coverage to more Americans — it may not even be the most important piece of the puzzle. Each of them is important, and each of those three aspects is important, and some of them that just focus on one aspect are as important as the others, but you’ll notice that those three things, the three elements — effectiveness, cost control, more access — are the same things that I identify in the “problems” page as being the overarching problems with the system. It’s ineffective, it’s leaving America bankrupt, and it leaves many Americans out altogether.

RS: So in a lot of ways here, you’re using the “Death Panels” meme, if you will, to kind of turn it around on the people that are saying a lot of things without any information, and you’re providing the information to back up what you think is the right frame for the discussion that we should be having in the media.

MT: Right.

RS: People are going to ask, is it activism or is it journalism?

MT: Yeah, absolutely, and I come out, one of the first things I say on the About page, is I’m a journalist. I identify myself as an online journalist, but I definitely have a perspective on this, which is that I am in favor of health reform, broadly.

RS: And I’m right there with you. So from a theoretical point, I’m sort of interested in [the question]: Does identifying ourselves as journalists, first, does that make it easier for the average person who comes across this site to then say “Oh, OK. I believe what he says, he’s got a point of view, but I can tell this is journalistic.”

MT: Yeah, it’s really hard to say. And this is an area, especially, health reform, where it’s difficult to draw that line, partially because the balance of evidence is weighted so heavily in one direction. It is really difficult to say that the U.S. has a good healthcare system, or the best healthcare system, among industrialized nations and provide any evidence to back up that claim.

So, you will notice, the Frontline producer, T.R. Reid, who’s behind one of the big media efforts to grapple with the problems of the healthcare system, which is called “Sick Around the World” — it’s a Frontline documentary. T.R. Reid is actually a strong proponent of health reform, and his new book looks at healthcare systems in other countries and comes away with the conclusion that the U.S. should emulate these. So in a way, T.R. Reid, who’s definitely a prominent, well-recognized journalist on the issue, is also an activist for this particular type of reform.

It is a tricky line, and I think, especially on a subject like this, [that] saying a lot of things that have a lot of evidence behind them and that you can say are sort of objectively true still sounds like you’re stumping for a particular perspective.

RS: Right and it’s not necessarily as clear-cut as “the earth is round; the earth is flat,” but I’d like to believe for a majority of Americans [that] it’s clearly something right, and so as journalists, the question is how do we maintain our skepticism? I’m not going to use the O word but [how do we] maintain our skepticism and yet come up with the right evidence to back up our claims? And I think that you’ve done that here, and stylishly. So thank you for taking a quick time-out to talk to me. I’m sure that you’re refreshing Google Analytics a couple times. Obviously, I think this is a really fascinating piece of journalism, and I hope we’ll be able to talk more about it soon.

MT: Hey, thanks for the interview Ryan, and to everyone who’s listening. Check out deathpanels.org and spread the word.