This year, many first year college students will take a class taught by library staff on critical thinking and evaluating sources. I am trying to convince their parents and other interested people that they need to do the same. There is more to contemporary education than reading, writing and arithmetic. The current health care debate is the prime reason why we need information evaluation and literacy skills. This is a my attempt at a functional crib sheet.
To begin, I want to focus on primary and secondary sources and the tools that you can use to help make sense out of the verbal and textual clutter. Next week I’ll show how to evaluate material associated with vested interests and opinion.
Let me say that this topic is a challenge. I would like to keep politics out of this post. That is impossible. My goal for this specific post is to help us make informed decisions. If you haven’t done so please check out Nancy Watzman’s BlogHer post on More Tools to Get Your Own Scoop on Health Care Debate.
Who Said What? - Look For Primary Sources
The primary source is the originator of the statement or documentation. It can be a person, organization or, in this case, a branch of the United States government. There are multiple health care bills and proposals; the one that has gotten the most publicity as of this writing is from the House of Representatives. It is known as H.R. 3200, the "America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009."
This is the primary source you use to support or refute a fact or statement being discussed about the proposed legislation. Internet users can view and download a copy of the printed bill or you can access a web version from the Library of Congress Thomas.gov portal. I found the web version easier to navigate and target the sections of the bill I am most interested in reviewing.
The Cost of Health Care
Reading a health care bill is one thing but it is also important to understand what has been spent by the government and the projected futures expenses. Again, I’m going to use governmental figures because no matter what political party is in office there is always someone standing in the corner saying, “We are in trouble. We can’t continue spending like this; please pay attention.”
Allow me to cast a light on the Accountants, Analysts and Researchers in the following governmental offices:
The Congressional Budget Office has a section on the website that is a quick view on health care spending and projections. You might want to take a look at a 2007 report that really is clear and concise on why we are in this situation. Insurance, Providers and Patients all have a share of the responsibility for the expense. We need to be honest about the problem. This report does it in 30 pages. There are people who have issues with the Congressional Budget Office. Not to worry. I have more.
From Census.gov this is the 2009 Statistical Abstract where you can view health care expenditures from 1961 to projected 2017. Let me give you a hint. The numbers do not go down over time. You can see a quick pdf chart of the figures.
The Government Accountability Office constantly looks at how money is spent. There is so much data here I get the warm fuzzies just thinking about diving in the data flow. You might feel otherwise. I understand.
Please use the search engine and type in “health care”. Then filter by the year you want to see data. You can read summaries, the full text, or an accessible version for text readers.
The main point of this section is know your facts and share with others if asked. You should direct attention, whenever possible to the primary source of information. Everything else is a secondary or derivative source and subject to interpretation.
Secondary Sources - Verification and Interpretation
Traditionally, secondary sources have been newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Responsible journalists will cite the source of the topic they are reporting. Secondary sources can also point to expert might support or disprove the presented information. That is why you will see a lot of news articles and television news programs seek out the expert. “The expert states…” not the reporter/journalist.
Bloggers can be secondary sources if they cite the primary source without distortion, that they provide linked attribution that can be easily followed by their visitors and that there is a clear separation between providing facts and providing opinion.
Check It Once and Check It Again
Journalism and news reporting can be helpful to consumers when they examine a statement and methodically evaluate the source and credibility. My love knows no bounds for FactCheck.org and their review of a chain e-mail letter Twenty Six Lies About H.R. 3200. And how can I not mention PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter on the same e-mail meme.
Another place to hang around is the Association for Health Care Journalists blog. These are the folks that we want to keep an eye on because there is reporting here that may or may not make print in your local newspapers or television news program.
For example, you might have heard about the dust up concerning John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods and his Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Via Pia Christensen's post, I found out that Mr. Mackey has very interesting connections to the health care industry.
The original post was written by Laura Bennett and appeared on Muckety.com. Muckety.com helps you see visual relationships between people and companies. It was a little clunky for me but it does work. Many media outlets are creating their own “health blog” including the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and Consumer Reports.org Health Blog.
I have questions if this is a good thing or not. If the media outlets has not provided credible journalism in their traditional environment what makes them think a blog is the way to go?
I don’t have to tell you that there is an increasing disconnect between certain types of journalism and consumers. Some newspapers are so busy trying to learn to tweet that they have forgotten how to tell the story. There are a lot of reasons why we are getting the kind of reporting that does not seem to be serving our needs. Sadly too many examples to lists.
There are other bloggers that can say it better than I can. Mary Turck writes about the Spinning The News:
Too much news reporting is about spin and who’s spinning which directions and which spin is working. It’s about tactics and winning and losing and the horse race — and not about the issues and facts.
It’s one thing when people hear new information and share it with others (there’s a reason they call it a “rumormill” and “myths”), but when the media are behind the misinformation it helps no one. People trust the media and they assume that the stories are well-researched. But that’s not always the case in this day and age of a small news hole and the fierce competition to stand out with breaking news. The pressure for ratings is higher than ever and staying relevant in the land of Twitter and the Blogosphere is a challenge for mainstream media.
Next time, a look at how to evaluate those with a vested interest in the health care debate and how to spot an editorial, an advocacy post and various forms of dis-information.
Gena Haskett is a Contributing Editor at BlogHer and that is where this post originally appeared.