May 21, 2014
Kate Riley Leaves Out The Who — Three Times

The editorial page editor of the Seattle Times approved an editorial that made that mistake three times.  The second omission is mostly harmless, the first and third not so harmless.

The omissions are in today's editorial, which argues that Washington state should mandate insurance coverage for autism treatment.  Here are the offending paragraphs, in order:

The real issue of a so-called "autism mandate" is cost.  In a letter circulated to state lawmakers in March, an actuary hired by a Regence affiliate estimated that such a mandate would cost between $8.8 billion and 28.3 billion per year.

But that wild estimate used costs far above the norm, and is contradicted by studies in some of the 31 states currently with an autism mandate.  In February, Missouri's insurance commissioner found the Show Me state's autism mandate amounted to just two-tenths of 1 percent of overall insurance claims costs and was "very unlikely" to have any impact on premiums.
. . .
And it [autism treatment] saves an estimated $1.5 million over the the person's lifetime, according to a 2011 study in Minnesota.  Often, those lifetime costs are borne by public human services so Washington has a vested interest in ensuring early therapies are more widely available.

Let's suppose a reader wanted to know whether that actuary — who apparently earns his living making these estimates — is any good professionally.  But that is rather hard to find out if you don't know who he is, or even which Regence affiliate hired him.

The reader should not have to search for that information.

The editorial writer doesn't name the Missouri "insurance commissioner", but a quick search turns up John M. Huff, a lawyer and a political appointee, who was given that job by the Democratic governor of the state, Jay Nixon.  Probably, Huff was referring to data from one of a series of annual autism reports, such as this one.

(Technically, Huff is the "director of the Missouri Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration", not the state's insurance commissioner.  But he's the closest thing Missouri has to an insurance commissioner.)

So it is possible, without a lot of work, to find the name of the Missouri insurance commissioner, and some of the data referenced in that vague second paragraph.  But readers shouldn't have to do that work, shouldn't have to spend time searching for that information.

Finally, suppose you wanted to look at that "2011 study in Minnesota".  All you have to work with is a dollar estimate, a state, and a year.  You don't know whether the study was done by an actuary, whether it was published, and, if so, where, and so on.  I suppose that, if I wanted to take the time I could find it, given those three hints, but I don't know how long that search would take, and there is no reason that I, or any other reader, should have to do those searches.

"Who" is the first of the "Five Ws", and rightly so, since it is usually the first thing that readers want to know.  When it is left out, as it was in that editorial, the omission(s) should be corrected.  Ms. Riley should give readers those three names, with their titles, in a small follow-up editorial.

This is not the first time I have seen this kind of omission in our local monopoly newspaper, not the first time that most readers would have to search to find who wrote a study the journalist referred to.

Cross posted at Jim Miller on Politics.

(Including the who would almost always improve the writing, too.  For example, that first paragraph would be better if it read something like this:

Opponents of the autism mandate often claim that it costs too much.  For example, "Actuary John Doe", working for "Regence affiliate X", estimated that the mandate would cost Washington state between $8.8 billion and 28.3 billion per year.  "Regence manager Y" sent a letter with that estimate to state lawmakers in March, in an effort to block the mandate.

(I am guessing that the letter came from a manager, not the actuary, but I could be wrong about that.)

For your own amusement and edification, you may want to try re-writing the second and third paragraphs in a similar way.

Would an autism mandate be a good idea?  I didn't know before I read and studied that editorial, and I don't know now, since it was not easy to check key assertions in the editorial.)

Posted by Jim Miller at May 21, 2014 04:04 PM | Email This