Three things to consider about that long BuzzFeed takeout on Christian health-care sharing

Yes, I'm doing a listicle about a BuzzFeed News story. Honestly, would any other approach make sense?

After all, as I type this, you can go to BuzzFeed's home page and click "35 Pictures That Will Make You Love NYC More Than You Thought Possible." Or if you prefer, there's "23 Things You Did In 2007 That You've Probably Completely Forgotten About."

On the other hand, BuzzFeed News does some important, thoughtful journalism — so we at GetReligion can't completely ignore its contributions to the Godbeat.

As regular readers know, we at this journalism-focused website tout a traditional American model of the press — focused on fair, balanced reporting with sources of information clearly named.

So what do we make of an in-depth BuzzFeed News story that blends elements of traditional journalism and advocacy reporting?

That, my friends, is a key question we face in analyzing BuzzFeed News' in-depth — really in-depth — piece headlined "There's A Christian Alternative To Health Insurance, But It's Not For Everyone."

Because it's crucial to understanding where the piece is headed, here's a big chunk of the opening. It's a larger block of text than we usually quote. But there's much more of the story left even after this, so please stick with me:

Bet Olson was 16 years old when she realized she wanted to adopt a child someday. Bet, who was raised in a Christian family outside Chicago, was attending a youth group service at Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch in South Barrington, Illinois. A young man started to talk about adoption. “He talked about how the story that God has for his people is to adopt them as his own,” Bet recalls. “That this is God’s character, to bring love and redemption. He talked about how he was adopted and what a difference that made in his life. I soaked up every word.”
Nearly 20 years later, Bet and her husband, Erik, live in a small green house on a quiet road in Elgin, Illinois. When I visited, it was early March, that time of year in the Midwest when you can wake up to a 70-degree day or to snow. This day was somewhere in between — overcast and in the low 40s. The Olsons’ children, Zain, 7, and Tesfa, 6 — Tess for short — had just gotten home from school and were playing in the sunroom at the front of the house. Tess was talking about her kindergarten class, where she had just been named Kid of the Week. “That means everyone’s going to say good things about me!” she said.
Bet and Erik adopted Zain and Tess from Ethiopia. “People kept telling me I would change my mind” about adoption, Bet said. “And I just said no. I felt so strongly that this was my calling.”
Bet and Erik began the process of international adoption in 2008, after three years of marriage. Following a home study and over a year of waiting, they were matched with Zain in August 2010. “For the longest time we had two pictures, and we would just look at those two pictures and we just fell in love with this kid,” Erik said. They flew to Ethiopia in November 2010 to meet Zain, and then waited six weeks in Addis Ababa for all the visa paperwork to go through in the US before they were allowed to bring him home, when he was 7 months old. They came back just before Christmas as a family.
But there were complications ahead. Because the Olsons were members of a Christian health care sharing ministry, rather than a traditional insurance plan, some of Zain’s health care costs wouldn’t be covered the way a biological child’s would. Being adopted was akin to a pre-existing condition.
Since 2007, Bet and Erik had been members of Samaritan Ministries, one of a number of Christian health care sharing ministries in the US that take the place of traditional health insurance by pooling and redistributing members’ money each month. They joined when they were both working for a Christian nonprofit founded by Bet’s dad, where they had to personally raise funds from donors to cover their own salaries. Raising more than that to pay for insurance through the organization as well would have been a burden, so they started to look for creative solutions.

Since I promised a listicle, here are three things to consider when reading this story:

1. The journalist has done a ton of reporting.

There's a whole lot that readers interested in Christian health-care sharing ministries can learn from this story. (Along those same lines, I'd recommend Kate Shellnutt's Christianity Today article on health-care sharing from earlier this year.)

2. But — and this is an important "but" — the BuzzFeed piece is not told in an impartial fashion.

Along with the crucial facts and details that contribute to readers' greater understanding, there's a significant amount of the writer's own perspective and, dare I say, point of view. The piece is told with an attitude, in other words.

For example, these crucial paragraphs lack any named attribution and read like they could be part of an editorial — as opposed to a news story:

For Christians looking for a way to opt out of an expensive health insurance market that they see as profit-driven, intruding on their personal freedom, and indifferent (at best) to issues of abortion and the sanctity of life, health care sharing ministries may seem like the perfect, providential solution. These ministries now legally satisfy the individual mandate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and have expanded rapidly since its passage. But there are serious drawbacks lurking below the surface. These ministries’ policies replicate some of the most significant problems with insurance that the ACA was intended to address in the first place, and come with their own unique risks for consumers.
Legally, ministries are not insurance providers, so there are no laws regulating who they must accept as members or which costs they cover — just a social contract between their members. Pre-existing conditions can disqualify someone from membership, while lifetime reimbursement caps and religious restrictions might mean that some members’ medical needs aren’t, in fact, reimbursed. These ministries are, to many, a straightforward blessing: a cheaper alternative to insurance and an extra assurance that their money is not going toward abortions. Many of the members I’ve spoken with are very happy with the care they receive and have found these ministries to be a source of security and community. But for others, like the Olsons, the relationship is not so simple. That’s because the stated Christian mission of these ministries doesn’t always match the reality of what they offer in the face of real, painful need.

My point: Readers should not go into this piece expecting a straightforward, he said/she said approach. Then again, the writer talks to a bunch of sources that she does name. So we are back at the question that seems to arise more and more here at GR: "What is this?"

3. Apparently sensing BuzzFeed's adversarial take, one key source declined to comment:

Aware of their unique position in the health care landscape, these ministries continue to think about how to protect themselves from meddling regulations, and that involves a robust public relations effort. Deborah Hamilton, who heads Hamilton Strategies, the public relations firm that represents Samaritan Ministries, declined to arrange an interview after asking me via email whether this would be a “positive” article, and then told me that she did not think BuzzFeed News would be a “strategic media outlet” for Samaritan.

I'm a journalist, not a PR guru. But I'm not certain Hamilton helped her client there. Why not arrange an interview and answer the reporter's questions? The writer obviously did her homework and talked to a bunch of sources, so the only thing accomplished by refusing to make an interviewee available was making Samaritan Ministries look like it had something to hide. 

A final thought or two: I prefer impartial storytelling free of the journalist's opinions. At the same time, in a rapidly changing media environment, I am inclined to appreciate any legitimate, long-form reporting on a religious issue — and this BuzzFeed piece certainly qualifies. So that's how you end up with a wishy-washy critique such as this one.

Maybe readers have stronger opinions on whether you like — or don't — the BuzzFeed approach to in-depth journalism. By all means, comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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