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posted: 10/10/2013 5:00 AM

Words and the difference between influence, information

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Which approach to national health care do you prefer, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act? It's an important question that underpins the Daily Herald's policy regarding references to the law at the core of the controversy keeping the federal government shut down. And it has implications that extend well beyond just the health care debate.

By now, if you pay any attention to news media or even just late-night talk show television, you surely know that both names -- Obamacare and Affordable Care Act -- refer to the same federal law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. But many people don't pay close attention to civic affairs and before ABC-TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel's stunt last week made a mockery of them, many did not pay enough attention to a detail even as basic as the name of the law fueling the nation's hottest political controversy.

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Kimmel sent a camera crew to ask people on the street how they felt about Obamacare and about the Affordable Care Act. Asked if they supported "Obamacare," person after person strongly said "no." But asked if they supported "the Affordable Care Act," the same individuals all said yes. There was, by the way, at least one supporter of Obamacare, and true to form he opposed the Affordable Care Act. Kimmel's aim is entertainment, so we didn't get to see how many, if any, people refused to take the bait and knew the two terms referred to the same law. But his anecdotal results didn't vary much from what more scientific studies of the same question have found.

A recent CNBC poll found that when those surveyed were asked their stance on Obamacare, 46 percent opposed it, but when they were asked about the health law without that name, the opposition fell to 37 percent. And, conversely, that same poll found that 29 percent of people surveyed liked the law when it was called Obamacare, but only 22 percent liked it when it was just described as the health law.

All this emphasizes the care that we in the news media need to take in selecting the terms we use for controversial issues. If we use "Obamacare" to refer to the national health care law, the chances are good we're making 46 percent of you think of something bad. But the alternative is far from ideal. As The Associated Press' official policy notes, the name of the law, like that of many laws, was chosen to make it sound attractive. So if we call it "the Affordable Care Act," we may be subtly influencing opinions toward a positive interpretation of the law.

For that reason, we are striving, when not quoting others, to adhere to AP's policy and use a more generic reference.

"Many, many people disagree about how 'affordable' (the law) is," Senior Vice President and Editor John Lampinen noted in an email to editors this week. "A phrase such as 'the new federal health care act' is much less loaded, and while we don't necessarily have to adopt exactly those words, something along that line is what we should be using."

For us, one technical nicety of shorthand terms like "ACA" or even "Obamacare" is that they fit much more neatly into headlines than more descriptive words, so it may be a challenge to remove them from our vernacular entirely, but their use still should be rare.

This semantic juggling is not, by the way, something new for us. Our policies already warn explicitly about loaded terms like "anti-abortion," "pro-life" "illegal aliens" and many others. But the "Obamacare/Affordable Care Act" confusion does show the care we must take when reporting on controversial topics -- and, don't forget, the caution you should use when you read or hear about them.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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