Word Choice A Key Factor In Health Care Debate

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Part of the debate over health care is a debate over word choices. Every side uses words calculated to persuade people before they even think about it. But can one side or the other win the debate simply by winning the war of words?

Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, tells Steve Inskeep that when faced with issues that are difficult to comprehend, people listen for cues.

"These are complex policy matters which the average American could not be expected to understand, particularly the nuances," Newport says. "I'm not sure everyone on Capitol Hill understands all that's involved in all of these complex health-care reform suggestions or legislative possibilities."

In that situation, he says, people listen for key words as something is being explained to them. "The public listens for cues. ... In public policy debate, if you can grab the public's imagination by continually stressing something negative about something complex, that's what they will tend to agree to in the short term."

What President Obama refers to as a "public option" that will keep private insurance companies "honest," for example, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has called a "government plan."

"You think we're in debt today; wait till you see what happens when that happens," Hatch told NPR last week.

"The key there is: a public option that would be in existence along with a private plan," Newport says. "And when you put it that way, and when you stress that, every bit of polling I've looked at shows a majority approve that idea."

But many Americans have said they want a choice of insurance, doctors and hospitals, Newport says, so "if you simply say, 'Do you want the government to run health care?' the polling is much less positive."

Using the term "big insurance companies" also plays on public bias, Newport says.

"The word 'big' in particular — we just did a fascinating poll about confidence in business, and when you said 'big,' confidence was literally at the bottom of the list , the lowest thing we tested," he says. "If you said 'small business,' it was near the top. So any time you talk about big anything, but particularly big business entities, you get a negative reaction from the American public."

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