The Mailbag: When Interview Subjects Can Be Seen as Stereotypes

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

This posting has been updated on April 3 with a response from the NewsHour

I was out of the office last week, and will be for a few more days, but my assistant, Jeremy Barr, and I still keep an eye on the ombudsman’s mailbox and eventually try to catch up with viewer observations that land while I’m away.

A week, of course, can seem like six months these days, given the pace at which news unfolds concerning President Trump, his administration, and its political agenda. So it is not surprising that in the days just before the White House decided, last Friday, not to move ahead with its health care bill to “remove and replace Obamacare,” there was continuing coverage of the debate over health care on the PBS NewsHour and reaction from viewers.

Within that reaction were several emails (and a phone call) that focused on a specific NewsHour segment that aired on Thursday, March 23. That segment, which is shown in the video below, dealt with the potential impact on coverage and costs for individuals under the new Republican plan, known as the American Health Care Act, if it became law, and its potential impact on those who have been covered by the existing Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

In introducing the segment, anchor Judy Woodruff said: “Our team has traveled across the country to capture the stories and the voices of those who could be most impacted. We have two of those profiles tonight. We start with the perspective of a small business owner and her employees in Zanesville, Ohio. She says she hopes that a new law would offer cheaper insurance options with fewer required benefits…”

Introducing the next interview, Woodruff said: “Affordability is clearly a big issue in the debate over the health care replacement. But so is the question of who’s covered. The Republican bill would end the expansion of Medicaid over time, and would phase out government coverage for millions of people. We visited a current Medicaid recipient in Shreveport, Louisiana, who got coverage because of the Affordable Care Act and is now worried about what may happen.”

The viewers who wrote to me about this segment raised two main points. One was straight-forward: that the small business owner should have been more intensively questioned about the cost and coverage issues she faced when deciding to ultimately drop employee health care coverage. But the larger issue that several viewers called attention to involved what one viewer described in a phone call as using “subliminal imagery that reinforces negative stereotypes.” He said he was “surprised public television isn’t more cognizant” of the consequences of this kind of imagery.

The viewers, in fact, raised what I think is an important issue for all television news editors to consider: whether the presentation gets in the way, at least for some people, of the substantive points that people being interviewed are making.

On one hand, I have no reason to think these interviews were anything but honest and informative efforts. But the number of people who wrote to me and raised the issue of racial profiling put their finger on an important journalistic issue: about the differences between what reporting thinks it is conveying and how at least some viewers perceive it; about how the selection of interview subjects can play, unwittingly, to racial stereotypes that may diminish the impact of the reporting and enhance the imagery of critics. I think these are observations worth thinking about, hence this posting.

Here is a representative sampling of the letters. I forwarded all or most of them to the NewsHour on Friday and welcomed any response to the themes raised in the letters. I will add whatever response is forthcoming.

Here Are the Letters

I watched your show tonight (3/23) and while I thought the piece on Ohio was very moving and gave me insight into a side I tend to not understand and to disagree with, I was disappointed by the people you chose to represent what the loss of the ACA will mean to them. If your goal is to bring news to people and open their eyes and foster understanding, then I think you erred by choosing an overweight diabetic African American woman who had been on Medicaid to represent someone who needs the ACA. I am embarrassed to be so blunt, but people are not kind to people who take public assistance (many assume lazy), who are overweight (Americans often assign overweight people negative traits). In addition, many people who voted for Trump view African-Americans in a negative light, similarly to Trump, and do we even need to discuss the negative view of women by people who support Trump? Finally diabetes is often considered a disease that is the result of a chosen lifestyle.

If you wanted to truly show two similar people who are affected very differently by the ACA, then you should have chosen people who are as similar as possible because sadly, some of the people that you want to reach, will not be able to see past gender, skin tone, jobs, government help and weight. Your piece was amazing, but would have been much more powerful if you had allowed fewer variables that would enable people to dismiss the core of your story.

Sarah Lanath, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

The piece 'How GOP bill could dramatically change lives...' I felt left out needed information and possibly stereotyping. With the business owner, what were the specific reasons the insurance went up and policy options. On stereotyping, why an overweight, black, woman, semi-unemployed, and unmarried (?) PBS is good.

James Weibel, Long Grove, IA

~ ~ ~

I was very disappointed with the PBS NewsHour story this evening (3/23) on "Did Obamacare Hurt or Help You". The journalists covering the stories gave no context to or vetting of the "stories" told - especially the story about the Napa Auto Parts store that had to give up giving health insurance to its employees because of the increased cost of the ACA policies. Why didn't the investigators/journalists give or ask actual numbers here. The story was that the added cost of the ACA policies caused the company to go from paying 80% of their employees’ healthcare costs to 0% of their healthcare costs. How many employees were at this company? How much money was the company contributing to the average employee when it was contributing to 80% of their healthcare premiums? Now that they are paying 0% of their employee's premiums, who gets that money? Did they give it to the employees as a raise or do they keep it in the company?

There are so many objective questions that could have been addressed to give context to what the company managers/executives were saying, but the NewsHour didn't do any of this.

Corrales, NM

~ ~ ~

My comment is related to the story tonight on Obama's ACA: Has it Hurt or Helped? I am deeply disturbed at the racial bias in the anecdotal profiles presented tonight of a White small business owner of a NAPA auto supply store versus a Black chemist, contract worker on Medicaid from Shreveport, LA. It was profoundly, racially biased. First and foremost, the objective macro-economic data should have been highlighted: Millions (10-20) more people are insured as a result of the ACA, and the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in decades: proving people do want to work and do work, especially if they have or can get medical insurance. Healthy people make our workforce stronger and our country more productive. Every human being wants to feel useful and productive unless they are mentally or physically very ill. The economic data is factual.

Anecdotal profiles can reinforce biases and prejudices, not based on economic facts. If you were to do more anecdotal profiles, I suggest a Black business owner who has "suffered" under ObamaCare, and a White person who has benefitted from healthcare coverage under Obama Care because the truth is millions of white working Americans have benefitted under Obama Care/ACA. The subconscious racism of your anecdotal profiles is very disturbing and feeds into racial biases that hurt people of color and justify White animosity and prejudice.

Jackson Hole, WY

~ ~ ~

I watched the segments profiling individual experiences with the ACA tonite. I really wish there could have been discussion after each segment by experts explaining the issues. For example, I could not understand why the auto parts company's insurance costs rose so much after ACA implementation that they could not afford to offer insurance to their employees. I found it frustrating to watch the segments without adequate perspective.

Brookhaven, GA

~ ~ ~

Though I love the NewsHour, it continues to perpetuate the impression that the ACA benefits only minorities, and whites are burdened by it. It perpetuates the image that government assistance is for "them." Tonight's story was yet another instance of this. Continuing this pattern does a disservice to minorities, as well as whites--because of course many whites do need the ACA, and many minorities do not. I have noticed this pattern in the media---stories about tough economic times over-emphasize struggling minorities--this is not helpful to anyone. It needs to be balanced.

Shelburne, VT

~ ~ ~

I found your interview with the GKM Auto Parts owner on the ACA to be misleading. What the owner didn't mention was that once she dropped coverage for her employees, they qualified for much better ACA insurance for less money. A parts counter person in Zanesville, OH, earning $15 an hour could buy a Silver plan for a family for 4 for $146 a month (after subsidy). From her remarks, it was clear her original policies did not include the essential benefits, as typical of many pre-ACA plans in small businesses.

Issaquah, WA

~ ~ ~

*NewsHour health producer Jason Kane responds:

Dear Michael Getler and PBS NewsHour viewers,

Thank you very much for your thoughts and letters on the health care profiles that aired on the PBS NewsHour on Thursday, March 23. Careful consideration goes into the selection of our interview subjects and the content of our coverage, and we welcome the opportunity to pull back the curtain on our decisionmaking in this case.

Viewers expressed two chief concerns with the health care profiles that aired on the week Congress was preparing to vote on the American Health Care Act. The first was that the interview subjects were not thoroughly questioned on the specifics of their health care plans or the amount their premiums increased under the health law. The producers who prepared these segments did a thorough job vetting and interviewing the subjects -- both in the pre-interviewing process and during the on-camera interviews. Our plan had been to air longer, more detailed versions of these profiles but because it was such a very busy news week, including the evolving negotiations over the American Health Care Act, as well as the hearings of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the investigation into Russian influence on the U.S. presidential election, we had limited time. In the end, we decided that airing profiles that illustrate the human stories behind the debate on Capitol Hill -- even if we needed to sacrifice some of the details -- would be preferable to not airing the profiles at all.

Other viewers expressed concern that NewsHour chose to reinforce “negative stereotypes” by profiling Julia Raye, a black woman who lives in Shreveport, La., who currently receives Medicaid. We understand the concern and actively work to include representatives of an array of races, age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds in our profiles of people impacted by the Affordable Care Act (our recent in-depth stories from Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Arizona, California, Washington state, and West Virginia illustrate this point, to name a few). In this particular series, we included Julia Raye and the small business in Ohio, but we also profiled a 61-year-old white woman who says the ACA provided her with significant subsidies that saved her life, as well as two young white people in Salt Lake City who wish the government would provide them with more financial assistance to purchase health insurance. We included Ms Raye not because of her race but because she described her very particular worries about the safety net under the proposed GOP health plan so clearly. Further, Julia is a successful auditor who needed Medicaid for several months while unemployed, but she will soon be transitioning to a new job and employer-based insurance -- not exactly the stereotype of someone who is taking advantage of government assistance.

As the debate moves forward, we will continue profiling individuals who represent a diverse cross section of America. Thank you for watching, and please continue contacting us with your experiences, perspectives, and ideas for profile subjects as the health care debate moves forward.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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