News: How poor reporting becomes propaganda

Reporters and statistics rarely work well together:

In 2018, the average premium on the exchange was $5,798.83 and for 2019, companies are proposing to sell products with an average premium of $6,274.08.

Source: 2019 insurance on the Obamacare exchange in Ohio will increase | cleveland.com

An average provides useful information about a random distribution – ACA premiums are not a random distribution. ACA premiums are a non-linear distribution.

When prices are across a non-linear curve, the average tells us little about what an actual customer will pay.

During the first half of the curve, rates are nearly flat (up through age 43); 90% of the price hike occurs after age 43. Second, a related problem in ACA reporting is to quote the “age 40 premium”. Age 40 sounds like its a mid point price, but it is not for two reasons: (1) the midpoint of 21-64 is 42.5, not 40, and (2) the non linear curve. The age 40 premium is meaningless. My state agreed with me on this and now releases several sample quotes up through age 60.

The point here is that statistics can give a news report an air of authority. Unfortunately, until 2006, the accreditation standards for schools of journalism did not require an introduction to statistics. Most reporters were last exposed to math in high school algebra. A side effect of poor mathematics training is frequent misuse of numbers in news reports.

Readers see such numbers and take away a false understanding of the topic. This shapes their opinion of the topic being reported on, enabling their view to be twisted away from reality.

The chart is from own paper on what caused ACA premiums to skyrocket and ideas for solving it – however, I no longer believe that the ACA’s problems can be fixed for reasons explained in my paper.

Note – I first used the term “fake news” in a blog post (different blog) in 2014, and used it quite a bit in 2015 and 2016 as I saw numerous untrue “news” stories posted on social media as intentional propaganda messaging. Later, Trump began using “fake news” to complain about negative news coverage of his Administration, notably by CNN. Since then, I’ve tried to remember to use the term “fictional news” to avoid any semblance of linkage to Trump’s use of “fake news” terminology.

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