Wal-Mart Health Plan: New York Times vs. New York Times

After receiving an e-mail tip this morning, I started work on a post comparing two rather different accounts of the same story by Michael Barbaro, who covers the Wal-Mart beat for America’s Newspaper of Record, the New York Times.

Yesterday afternoon, he produced a story on Wal-Mart’s announcement yesterday of a new health plan for its employees for the website entitled, “Wal-Mart to Loosen Health Insurance Limits.” The piece implied that there was a lot of fanfare on Wal-Mart’s part but very little real change.

Barbaro apparently had an epiphany when he was revising the story for today’s print edition. The story now has a radically different headline: “Wal-Mart to Expand Health Plan.” A much more positive impression for those who just skim the headlines, no?

Now, granted, reporters tend not to write their own headlines. And, for that matter, layout considerations for the Web and the print edition are different and might have caused the need for a rewrite. Having written post titles for three years, I’ve certainly done my best to make them fit my page layout.

I ultimately gave up on the piece, though, finding too little there there. Despite the rather substantial changes, there was nothing that could not be explained away by the fact that the first piece was a rush job for the Web while the second was a more polished piece for the paper’s print edition that probably got more editorial scrutiny.

Mary Katharine Ham, however, did a good job running with it over at Hugh Hewitt’s place. Her conclusion,

[The] Times writer let his Wal-Mart hatred (Wal-Mart Derangement Syndrome?) get in the way of reporting these innovations as anything but shortcomings.

Kudos to the Times for running a rewrite, but the original piece is telling. You never know what kind of truths you’ll find hiding out on the wire. Read both stories.

That sounds right. Go check her piece out for the side-by-side comparison.

Before setting aside my work on the post, I emailed the NYT’s business editor and public editor several hours ago and have not heard back. My questions:

I note that there has been a substantial rewrite of Michael Barbaro’s report on the Wal-Mart health plan announcement from the edition that appeared on nytimes.com yesterday afternoon, ” Wal-Mart to Loosen Health Insurance Limits” as compared to this morning’s story for the print edition, ” Wal-Mart to Expand Health Plan.”

While both strike me as rather unfavorable to Wal-Mart, the revised story is much more objective. Is this a function of second thoughts on Barbaro’s part, more editorial supervision, additional information, pressure from Wal-Mart, or some combination of these factors?

Further, I note that Families U.S.A. is continually cited in Barbaro’s coverage as “a health care consumer-advocacy group.” Given the group’s rather radical leanings, that strikes me as an incredibly neutral–and thus misleading–characterization.

I hope to have a piece on this written for my weblog by 3 p.m. and would appreciate any insights you could offer.

If they respond, I’ll update the post.

For a more balanced account of the story, see the BBC: “Wal-Mart to expand health cover

The world’s largest retailer wants to expand its cheapest insurance scheme – in which staff pay $11 (£6) a month – to half its US workforce by next year. It also plans to cut the length of time that part-time staff and their children must wait before they become eligible. Separately, Wal-Mart is to open healthcare clinics in 50 of its stores.

Consultations at the walk-in clinics will cost about $50 per visit. The clinics are designed to provide a cost-effective option for the millions of Americans who have no health insurance. Many uninsured Americans use hospital emergency rooms where consultations, on average, cost more than $380.

Wal-Mart, America’s largest private-sector employer, has been under growing pressure to improve its staff healthcare benefits amid concerns about the spiralling costs of state-funded medical programs.

That is hardly a white-wash of Wal-Mart’s problems. Indeed, the next paragraph details the various legislation passed or pending in several states. But a reporter with no ax to grind is more likely to provide a straight account.

Frankly, it is quite odd to have a reporter assigned to cover a Wal-Mart beat. Inevitably, biases will form. Far better, it seems to me, to simply have reporters from the business desk on rotating assignments to provide varying perspectives.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    James:

    “Americas newspapre of record, the NYT” ?

    I’m from the midwest and I never see that rag around here and never have seen anyone around here reading it. While it may be the rag of the eastern seaboard that seems to love the extreme liberal side of every newsworthy event, it’s sure not welcomed here. Midwestern folks have “family values” and a sense of fairness and patroitrism that escapes all those at the NYT.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Herb: I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek there. It’s how the NYT sees itself and how media critics think of it. Frankly, while I think it’s a very good paper, I think WaPo and even the Christian Science Monitor are better national papers at this point.

    Still, the NYT is the newspaperman’s newspaper. Because of the NYT Index, it’s also the ones historians and other academics tend to cite years down the line.

  3. spencer says:

    Very good article until the latst paragraph.

    Why do you want the reporter that covers WMT to be ignorant about the finer details of the firms policies? Would you want the reporters that cover the Redskins to only have some vague knowledge about the team ?