Outside our industry, workers’ compensation is something that historically no one liked to write about. Its technical and legislatively controlled nature, in addition to jurisdictional variations, make it difficult to comprehend “at a glance” for many. I’ve often said that people outside our industry do not understand our system or our processes, and that hurts us as an industry. It also hurts the people we serve.
This general ignorance about comp is no different for journalists looking at the system for the first time. We’ve probably all read some news story referencing comp where it was apparent the reporter did not have a clue. I occasionally receive calls from intrepid reporters looking to cover some element of workers’ comp, or researching a specific story touching our industry. The level of comprehension by these reporters of our system is extremely limited, to say the least. I once spoke to a young and naive woman whose stated objective was to write a piece “about workers’ comp, explaining how it works”. I thought it an admirable effort, but it was not to be. After I explained that workers’ compensation laws, benefits and processes were different in every state, and she would have to be able to define those various differences, she responded by saying, “Oh, that sounds really haaaaaard”. Needless to say, that article never came to be.
She probably instead wrote something about the local shelters featured “Kitten of the Week”.
All of this, however is rapidly changing with the simultaneously “non-coordinated” release of both an OSHA report critical of the industry and an article series by NPR and ProPublica. Released the first week of March, the ProPublica article took a very hard look at workers’ comp and its shortcomings. While it is now fairly clear the authors had an agenda and specific outcome in mind, I will say that they did their homework, and probably do understand the processes of our industry better than most who have ventured this way in the past. Their article, and its message on the evils of our industry, are now being widely repeated in news and opinion pieces across the nation.
And the way this is being done is a problem for our industry.
Over the years, as bloggers and other opinion writers have had much easier access to a wider audience, the lines between opinion and news has blurred significantly. While news pieces of the past often had clear opinions behind them, they were supposed to be “neutral”, non-biased affairs. Today, articles that are clearly editorial in nature – opinion pieces that are pure commentary, are presented as news to a less than suspecting public.
For the record, the article you are reading is an opinion based commentary; not news.
This morning I came across a “News” article in the Chicago Sun Times that leans heavily on the ProPublica report. Entitled “Workers’ comp ‘reform’ good only for insurance companies”, the heavily slanted article claims that, while Illinois has slashed workers’ compensation rates, employers never saw a commensurate reduction in premiums. The author cites the Oregon Study showing rates dropped 24 percent between 2012 and 2014. He cites no source for the statement about premiums not being reduced for employers. His claim is that the resulting disparity means evil insurance companies have “pocketed the difference — estimated somewhere between $625 million and $1 billion”.
I wondered how this article, clearly labeled as “News” by the Chicago Sun-Times website, made it past whatever semblance of editorial discipline remaining at the paper today. As I read it, it clearly was an opinion piece, yet held a prominent “News” banner at the top of the article. It was not until we reach the italicized fine print at the bottom of the article that we learn the author is a trial attorney who is president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.
My issue is not with the attorney or his opinions. Everybody has a right to their view, and to share it as they please. My concern is that John Q. Public, already unaware of how workers’ comp works, and in some cases what it actually is, will read this piece labeled as news and take it for gospel instead of what it actually is; an opinion piece representing only one side of a discussion. Those blurred lines will continue to obfuscate the true narrative, and make it difficult to address true reform in the future.
There are many of us in the world of workers’ compensation, who while fully supporting the industry and its mission, recognize its shortcomings and have been actively working for change. Agenda based reporting and inappropriately labeled opinion pieces will only make true remedies in our industry more difficult to achieve, as the commingling of fact and opinion will present further obstacles to that effort.
That is, of course, just my opinion, which everyone has a right to. That fact should be news to no one, except apparently the Chicago Sun Times.