MOST OF THE
HEALTH NEWS YOU GET IS "PROMO"
OF MEDICAL REPORTING
April 8, 2002
- Too bad. Just when a news organization shows some rare guts and
enterprise in taking on Big Medicine, it gets whacked by another, in this
case, much larger, news organization for "gotcha" journalism.
In March 2001,
the Seattle Times published a highly-detailed six-part series raising
serious questions about a 1980s experimental bone-marrow transplantation
program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center ("the Hutch"). The
paper alleged that patients were not properly informed about the risks of
that procedure and that the cancer center had a financial interest in
providing such treatment.
up some prizes for its effort, the Seattle Times and its reporters, Duff
Wilson and David Heath, appeared to be well on their way to a Pulitzer.
And that may well turn out to be the case - well learn this afternoon-
but last month, after holding back for an entire year, Laura Landro, an
assistant managing editor at the Wall Street Journal let loose with an
op-ed piece in her own paper attacking the Seattle Times series for
getting it wrong about the Hutch.
who, by the way, was a patient at the Hutch and makes generous donations
to the medical institution, has since been strongly backed by the WSJs
Keep in mind
that the "dust" hit the fan just weeks before the Pulitzers were to be
But while much
of the to-do about this series rages on and is focused mainly on the
possibility that this was either some sort of smear campaign related to
the Pulitzers or a nasty bit of a personal vendetta against the Seattle
Times, I see this rather extraordinary incident as yet another example of
the potential obstacles news organizations face when they occasionally
decide to take on Big Medicine. In fact, the term "once in a blue moon"
best describes the type of in-depth medical reporting provided in the
Seattle Times series.
organizations sometimes dip into their resources and talent to probe
medical matters such as lack of informed consent or some skullduggery
related to the pharmaceutical industry. But, by and large, in sharp
contrast to the big splash here and there, daily health reporting
(including feature writing or TV "special" segments) often is little more
than promo. By that I do not simply mean that reporters hack out
information from press releases and yes, they certainly do a lot of that
rather shamelessly in both print and broadcast media but rather that
they do so little research that the net result might as well have been
plucked from a press release. Ive worked extensively in both print (e.g.
twelve years at The Montreal Gazette) and at the TV network news level for
a decade (including six years at ABCs World News Tonight With Peter
Jennings) to have first-hand knowledge of the often careless and flighty
way that medical news is put together, day in and day out.
On the print
side, editors often hand out health-related assignments to reporters who
are clueless about the topics they need to cover and depend largely either
on news clips available on computer or often extravagant PR packages that
they can rip off. At the network level, pretty much the same goes on, when
non-health producers and correspondents are given health-related stories
to do, or as the saying goes, to "crash," meaning that they only have a
few hours to put a piece together.
TV has its
special medical correspondent and producers, but often they do not have
the time to work up enough of a research sweat on a story, are handed
promo-like stories to do by know-little-or-nothing senior producers who
are thinking "promo" thoughts, or are compelled to deliver stories pegged
to major journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) or
the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). As though this
highly focused attention somehow represents health trends. At World News
Tonight, for example, the brass, which includes Peter Jennings, has
slightly expanded the scope of daily health coverage by presenting a short
string of headlines known as "The Medical File." I mean, why bother?
of time to conduct proper research and a steadfast preoccupation with a
highly limited health news focus is only a tiny part of the problem facing
the major news shows and many newspapers. Given this considerable
limitation, you can well imagine how difficult it is to explore issues of
great complexity and controversy. Unfortunately, once a particular line of
thinking on a health issue is more or less perceived by senior editors or
producers to be "fact," it is difficult to budge away from it. In fact,
challenges to health orthodoxy are typically buried; either no one
sufficiently understands the dissenters or cares to do so. Its simply
seen as too risky. What if so-and so calls the next day and questions the
health news judgement?
reporter with smarts knows how intertwined medicine has become with
commerce. Even the medical journals (and not just the two mentioned above)
have been crying foul when it comes to issues such as lack of informed
consent and conflict-of-interest. Anyone regularly covering health issues
should know that it has become increasingly difficult to trust people who
will be interviewed on a health issue, given the extraordinary ties so
many medical professionals now have with industry, notably the
pharmaceutical and biotech companies. In fact, there is often no real need
for official PR because so many of the doctors being interviewed have
financial interests in the work they do and they have learned to be "media
savvy," meaning they know how to spin facts and what not to say in
an interview. The end result in print or on TV is health hype and
health news deception. The problem here is that it takes a fairly
well-groomed health reporter to smell the bull when it is being released.
Most ill-prepared producers and correspondents will likely have plugged-up
matters further for an audience which is hungry for well-informed health
news are the doctor "reporters," both in print and on TV. Yes, unlike many
of their incompetent colleagues who would be hard-pressed to quickly
locate the liver or pituitary gland on a poster of the human body, they do
know the language of medicine and they can rattle off the names of major
medical institutions faster than a side-show barker can describe the evil
within the tent. So? But can they separate themselves sufficiently from
the medical indoctrination they have received over the years and get
reporter-tough? Im sure some can, but on TV, for example, most will never
make the grade beyond being a talking head, and talking in shallow tones,
sometimes ending a report with such wisdom as "See your doctor." This
little nugget always makes me smile because the average doctor knows squat
about the complexities of the latest medical stories that are developing.
So the poor viewer gets shafted twice. Nothing and nothing equals nothing.
With more and
more media organizations hammering out health news and mostly shallow
health news with little attempt at context, or substance, for that matter,
or digging into controversy the end result is that readers and viewers
are getting a dizzy fix of health trash. And there seems no end to it.
So whether the
Seattle Times wins a Pulitzer or not for its extensive investigation of
the Hutch and its experimental bone-marrow transplant program, I say good
try and please keep that kind of enterprise alive because its collapsing
and near death.