The MLAs were back in the House for two days and already the Premier was getting feisty. What set him off? Legitimate questions from the opposition.
Dr Swann started the ball rolling by asking the Premier to explain why the throne speech failed to address the crisis in healthcare. Mr Stelmach replied: there is no crisis in healthcare, in fact, quite the opposite is true, because over 60% of Albertans were “very satisfied with the health care they’re receiving”.* He referred to the recent Environics poll and the Health Quality Council in support of this statement. When Dr Swann told him that he’d had gotten it backwards—the Environics poll showed that two-thirds of Albertans felt the healthcare system was in crisis as a result of ineffective management, Mr Stelmach made the following bizarre comment:
“I think 36 percent or so of Albertans had concern(s) about health. You know, that is a very small percentage given that constantly, every day in every doggone paper there is something negative about health care delivery in this province, yet thousands – thousands – receive health care in this province on a daily basis.”* True, thousands are receiving healthcare every day, but that’s not the question, is it?
Then Mr Mason picked up the ball. He asked the Premier whether the PC’s had failed to meet Albertans’ healthcare needs and expectations. (It would have been nice if Mr Zwozdesky stepped in at this point to assist the Premier, but it’s likely a career limiting move to correct your boss on the public record, even if he’s already heading for the exit). Mr Stelmach responded with this: “…you know, we can make all kinds of jokes about health care, especially about what you’ve seen lately in the papers, obviously: if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead. But I’m very confident that we have one of the best health care systems in Canada.”*
Doggone papers? If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead? Ah, now I get it…the non-existent healthcare crisis is the press’s fault.
Let’s start with the “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” comment. The implication is that the profit motive determines which stories make it to the front page. Really? Sean Collins, a senior producer with National Public Radio (the US equivalent to CBC) says “Journalism is not run by a scientific formula. Decisions about a story being newsworthy come from the head, the heart and the gut”.** This is a very effective way to analyse a story. A “head” story is characterized by empirical reporting backed up with verifiable data. A “heart” story is emotionally moving, personal and often involves babies and small dogs. A “gut” story typically creates a reaction—usually panic—but is empirically unsubstantiated. The classic summertime “gut” story is a shark attacking a tourist which results in thousands of tourists boycotting the beach, notwithstanding the fact that only 10 swimmers are killed each year by sharks worldwide.
The “healthcare crisis” stories are “head” stories or “heart/head” stories. The failure of the government to budget the $320 million/year required to operate the new South Health Campus hospital is a classic “head” story. The story of an MLA’s father suffering from a heart attack but not being able to get treatment in an overcrowded ER waiting room is a “heart” story which quickly turns into a “head” story when it includes data indicating that wait time targets are not being met. None of the healthcare crisis stories are “gut” stories notwithstanding the fact that, much to the government’s chagrin, they embolden the public to write to their MLAs demanding a solution.
But here’s the bigger issue: The press plays a critical role in a democracy. It brings issues which are the responsibility of the government and which affect the welfare of Albertans to the public’s attention. To disparage the press with cheap shots shows a stunning lack of respect for both the news media and the people of Alberta who rely on that media in order to understand what the government is doing with their tax dollars. It may make the Mr Stelmach uncomfortable to have the press and the public breathing down his neck, but that’s called accountability.
So here’s a news flash for Mr Stelmach: The press did not create the healthcare crisis. You and your party did.
*Hansard, Feb 23, 2011, p 10, 11
**Quoted in Dan Gardner’s book, Risk, p 192