JAMA, The Journal of the American Medic.
April 8, 1992 v267 n14 p1969(3)
The magical medical media tour.
Many local television stations in the 1990s have a medical news reporter. But much of the medical
news that is on the air may be the product of public relations efforts by physicians, hospitals, and
pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers. Many medical news reporters do not have the
time or the expertise to distinguish between unbiased information and marketing releases. The
type of stories preferred by most medical news reporters are those about new drugs and new
treatments, rather than more relevant issues. Television stations often run video news releases
that are produced by pharmaceutical and medical device manufactures. A certification program
should be developed for broadcast medical reporters by professional organizations involved in
medical communication. Many physicians are under pressure to promote themselves and their
practices in the media. Physicians must assume responsibility for the information that they
communicate in the media, and consider how this information may affect their patients.

COPYRIGHT 1992 American Medical Association
grateful relief after treatment. The public relations firm has also provided the satellite coordinates and schedule for a THE DISSEMINATION of health and/or medical science satellite transmission of this same VNR so the station can news via television in the 1990s is a booming industry. "downlink" the video as a backup.
There is not only growth in the number of full-time medical reporters at local television stations, but there is also an The newly appointed medical reporter you just met had increase in the number of physician-broadcasters. What been worried because no major medical journal will be the viewing audience does not often see directly is the released today, and she had no other story ideas. The expansion of the public relations effort by physicians, cooltipped laser loop hemorrhoidectomy story won’t be a hospitals, and pharmaceutical and medical device scoop since she knows all the other stations will have it, manufacturers. But the audience is directly affected if and but it will fill her quota for the day and she’ll at least keep when television journalists fail to inject balance and perspective into marketing messages often skillfully packaged by vested interests. This commentary offers While hypothetical and fictional, the preceding scenario is constructive criticism for improvements in the preparation quite realistic. It happens in scores of television and the training of those who deliver health and/or medical newsrooms every day. And it points to multiple maladies in science news to most Americans.
the way television tries to disseminate medical news. Television station management often invests only in Step inside a local television newsroom for a brief tour. It window dressing in the coverage of medical news, failing may tell you something about how editorial decisions are to train its so-called specialists in the development of the made and how medical news is disseminated by television discriminating judgment so necessary in this area of today. Meet the woman who is called this station’s medical specialty reporting. Broadcast medical reporters, reporter. She has only held that title for 6 weeks, having sometimes pressured to fill a daily quota and perhaps been shifted from general assignments after a consultant lacking the experience to be able to make crucial advised the station management that medical news boosts judgments, ride the competitive flow of events, never ratings.
questioning sources and merely accepting spoon-fed information as fact. Pharmaceutical and medical device Today, all stations in town are sending reporters to a news manufacturers quickly capitalize on this journalistic conference concerning what they have been told is "a new naivete, collecting free publicity through news stories. breakthrough in medicine." It is a cool-tipped laser loop to Physicians and administrators of health care facilities ensnare hemorrhoids. All stations have received the same become enamored with their ability to promote themselves telefax transmission, followed by the same press kit or increase their fame or fortune via television. containing a written news release (which also serves as a Somewhere in all of this, the viewer (patient or consumer) suggested script), the names of local physicians who can is forgotten, as he or she tries to make sense of the "new be interviewed on the subject, and some sample questions breakthrough" just proclaimed on the evening news.
that might be asked of those physicians. To make the television reporter’s job easier, the public relations firm Today’s television journalist has the benefit of some managing the release of this information has also sent a amazing technological tools to help reflect accurately what video news release (VNR) with dramatic videotape of the is happening in the world. But viewers of television medical device being used in an actual procedure and a patient news reporting today often get a distorted reflection, with a interview--a man in agony before treatment and, again, in hightech twist. When stories on the latest laparoscope, - Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. -
JAMA, The Journal of the American Medic.
April 8, 1992 v267 n14 p1969(3)
The magical medical media tour.
laser, or lithotriptor outnumber stories on issues of the administration’s health policies. If a comedy show concerning health policy, access to care, and quality of can broach the subject, people who call themselves care, something is out of balance. Most television medical medical journalists should be able to find a way.
reporting today doesn’t help as much as it confuses, because it provides no context, follows no trends, and It is easy to ignore the in-depth side of television medical fosters unrealistic expectations on the part of the viewing reporting because it requires a commitment of people and money and time to do it. Most of the television medical reporters who responded to the survey mentioned earlier Instead of a "gee-whiz" story on laser angioplasty, for were hired in the past 2 years, a sign of growth in the field, instance, television news could present a more balanced but also a sign of inexperience in our "specialists."[7] It report, including the view of some physicians that this new shudder when I think of the complexity of the subject technology has not proven itself--in comparison with other matter, and add to it the competitive pressures that exist in approaches--in peripheral arteries, much less in coronary television today, and add to that the temptations of more arteries.[1-3] But, for the most part, television news fails to than 2000 VNRs a year (many of them produced by put such questions in context. Applying less "gee whiz" pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers) and more basic journalistic "why" might lead to a better offering television reporters some free, slickly produced story: analyzing the technology assessment vehicles that allow proliferation of devices and procedures and which may, in no small part, be responsible for higher medical An article in The Nation recently speculated that "the costs. But television stories, often paralleling the news wire powerful synergistic forces that drive television stations to service stories from which they are derived, tend to fall use drug industry VNRs include the weakening economics prey to "breakthroughitis," an affliction of the journalistically of local television, which enhances the desire for slick news segments with designer features but not designer prices. In all but the very largest markets, such as New While local television news has shown less maturity in this York and Los Angeles, few stations can afford to originate area of reporting, network television news has had its own all the material used on their local newscasts."[9] In that embarrassing moments, as in the coverage of the same article, Jill Olmsted, a professor of broadcast prescription drug tretinoin (Retin-A, Ortho Pharmaceutical journalism at the American University in Washington, DC, Corp., Raritan, NJ), the acne cream being converted into said, "Because of the downsizing of news staffs and the an "antiaging" cream.[4] One network, after touting that the general financial crunch, stations are often running VNRs product "can make fine lines and surface wrinkles in their entirety or some portion of them." When that disappear," concluded, "After today’s report on wrinkles, occurs, the viewing audience, thinking it is watching a people with acne better hope there’s some left."[5] Another news report, is actually being duped by an extended network spouted that the dream of "a cream that will commercial announcement. Where is the disclosure, the reduce the wrinkles of age and make skin young again . . . labeling, the truth in advertising about what is being put on now . . . could be a reality." That report’s summary comment stated that, "Physicians across the country expect to be flooded with requests for the drug."[6] Were There’s another kind of labeling I think the viewing those lines written by journalists or by drug advertisers? audience deserves. In return for the privilege of borrowing the public airwaves to deliver messages into our homes on A 1989 survey of health news reporters[7] showed that matters pertaining to public health and policy, broadcast stories on new drugs and new treatments are favorites of medical reporters should have to show how serious they television medical reporters--second on a list of 25 health care topics. At the bottom of the list were some topics that might be described as "old, dull, nonvisual stories": ethical I will promote an admittedly radical idea: that is, issues in health care, Medicare and Medicaid issues, certification of broadcast medical reporters. I remember mental illness, health care policy, and health care for the when the American Meteorological Society first granted its homeless. Sadly, these "less attractive" stories affect more seal of approval to some television weather forecasters. viewers than the "medical miracles" portrayed during the When I first saw that, it at least distinguished the television rating period (the so-called sweeps month). meteorologist on one channel from the television Recently, even the comedy writers for CBS-TV’s "Murphy personality on the other channel who didn’t have the Brown" program found a way to explore the issue of the American Meteorological Society’s logo, and who nation’s health policy debate, when they built an entire presented his entire weather report along with a half-hour show around Murphy’s need to find a way to jog cat-puppet sidekick. I challenge the National Association of alongside President Bush to get a quote for a story critical Science Writers, the American Medical Writers - Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. -
JAMA, The Journal of the American Medic.
April 8, 1992 v267 n14 p1969(3)
The magical medical media tour.
Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors reporters depend on scientific authorities, press Association--three organizations that might, logically, conferences, and professional journals in writing their develop such a certification process--to open a dialogue stories. The result: many journalists (even those who have on certification of broadcast medical reporters who have little formal training in science or the scientific method) met certain educational or background criteria. That might frequently adopt the mind-set or "frame" of scientists; they help viewers distinguish the professionals from the interpret science in terms defined by their sources, even when those sources are clearly interested in projecting a particular view. . . . Unaggressive in their reporting and Too many of today’s broadcast medical reporters are relying on official sources, science journalists often engage puppets--marionettes whose strings are yanked daily by in retailing the views of their sources rather than self-promoting physicians or their paid public relations investigating the methodologies and the evidence behind appointees or by fiercely competitive hospital hard sellers or by pharmaceutical flacks. In one recent example of the fox guarding the henhouse, the influence of high-powered Indeed, public relations people and pharmaceutical or public relations reached new depths inside the newsroom. device manufacturers aren’t the only puppeteers in the A public relations firm proudly announced that a St Louis, daily manipulation of the medical media. The reporting of Mo, television medical reporter had been hired as a medical news on television is also affected by the consultant, available to discuss "the role of video in changing environment in medicine. If a young physician pharmaceutical marketing." What appeared to be a simple was once intimidated by the pressure to publish, today’s career shift was complicated in the next line of the physician may be overwhelmed by the pressure to announcement: the reporter would continue in his position promote himself or herself on the air. Often, the root of the on the air as a medical reporter! How could a television problem with broadcast medical reporting is a physician station allow an employee to appear as a reporter, acting as the loudest advocate of his or her own work. In a knowing that person was also being paid by a public recent New York Times article,[11] a public relations relations company? There was a time when a journalist consultant for a California surgeon beamed: "We’re on the would be fired for such a professional conflict of interest. phone 40 hours a week for him; we mail out videos, press Now, it is announced publicly in a news release! That is a kits, action photos; we give him an angle, a special hook. new chapter in the journalist’s code of ethics.
He is a celebrity." That same article quotes a public relations agency survey of 2500 editors and reporters The audience expects carefully prepared, independently around the country that found that "90% of ideas for health researched news stories, just as the television station articles had originated with a public relations promises in its promotions. But today’s onslaught of public person"--higher than even the percentage for relations spoon-feeding overwhelms the inexperienced medical reporter marionette. It’s the puppet who is most prone to putting single-spokesman, simple-minded stories In the "Doctor’s Business" section of Medical World on the air without seeking second opinions. It’s the puppet News,[12] new opportunities are often listed. Recently, the who is most likely to use VNRs without scrutinizing the column promoted a syndicated medical television program. slant of the seller and without telling the audience that part Physicians "are becoming media savvy and learning to of what they’re seeing was paid for by an advertiser. It’s speak in sound bites," according to a television medical the puppet who may lack the natural, healthy skepticism reporter in Houston, Tex, who interviews local physicians that is supposed to be inbred in journalists.
for the local segment of the syndicated program. A Houston radiologist says the program "reinforces the idea In this election year, some political reporters have already that the hospital is up to date and cares about its patients been criticized for tactics in attack journalism. Some feel and the community at large." The article says that political reporters have crossed a line from healthy reinforcement costs the hospital $195 000 per year.
skepticism to ugly cynicism. It is ironic that, with television medical reporters, the pendulum may have actually swung American Medical News[13] also carriers periodic advice too far the other way, with healthy skepticism replaced by columns for physicians. One was headlined, "How to Get naive head nodding. Dorothy Nelkin of Cornell University, Your Name in the Newspaper or on the Air." It advised, author of Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science "It’s no surprise that there has been a significant and Technology, focuses on a particular problem with the awakening among physicians, who see news coverage not only as an acceptable means of practice marketing, but a free one as well. What is notable is the fact that so few While political writers routinely go well beyond press physicians really understand how to gain access to this briefings to probe the real stories behind the news, science fountain of marketing abundance." Perhaps it is only a few, - Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. -
JAMA, The Journal of the American Medic.
April 8, 1992 v267 n14 p1969(3)
The magical medical media tour.
but they have left a telltale trail, claiming cures and seconds for story airtime. (Try explaining a medical journal creating demand for unproven treatments mostly article in 90 seconds!) Worse, it doesn’t allow its young unchallenged by journalists or medical organizations.
journalists the time to think, to learn, to anticipate, to analyze, to question, to check other sources, and to The pressure to publish or to promote raises some new develop those sources in the first place before ever putting ethical dilemmas for any physician who may have contact one word on the air. It doesn’t invest the time or money to with the news media. Before clipping on the microphone train young journalists in this specialty area of reporting. for the interview, or before stepping behind the lectern at Failure to take that time helps explain how we get the the carefully arranged news conference, a physician familiar stories of quick fixes, magic bullets, and daily should have the unseen audience in mind--the viewers breakthroughs that feed hysteria and hypochondria, who will hear a physician on television tonight in a thereby harming, not helping, those who get most of their 90-second story. Perhaps physicians need to hear from health and/or medical science news from television. one their peers. A family physician recently wrote[14] [1]King EJ. New interventional devices and the need for about a week’s worth of patient demands following restraint. Radiology. 1989;170:945-946. [2]Strandness DE television publicity concerning various medical news Jr, Barnes RW, Katzen B, King EJ. Indiscriminate use of stories: parents insisted on magnetic resonance imaging laser angioplasty. Radiology. 1989;172:945-946. [3]Perler for their son’s knee because a television sports medicine B. A plea for truth in advertising. J Vasc Sur. program implied a scan should be done, four patients 1990;12:373-374. [4]Vreeland LN. The selling of Retin-A. specifically requested a new arthritis drug heavily Money. April 1989:75-87. [5]CBS Evening News. January promoted on television by a sports celebrity, and patients 21, 1988. [6]NBC Nightly News. January 21, 1988. stampeded the office requesting blood tests for [7]Robert Wood Johnson Foundation opinion survey. New prostate-specific antigen, serum renin, Ca 125, and Lyme Orleans, La: Healthcare Communications Systems Inc; disease. The physician concluded, "All of my best efforts October 1989. [8]Lipman J. |News’ videos that pitch drugs can be undone in an instant by the education, free speech, provoke outcry for regulations. Wall Street Journal. advertising, free enterprise, and capitalism that are the February 8, 1990;sect B:6. [9]Taylor ST, Mintz M. In video veritas? a word from your friendly drug company. The Nation. October 21, 1991:480-484. [10]Moore M, ed. Physicians who appear on television to promote Health Risks and the Press. Washington, DC: The Media themselves, and even those who appear with good Institute; 1989:63. [11]Rosenthal E. Medicine promotes intentions of communicating useful information, need to itself, with professional help. New York Times. December assume some of the responsibility for the quality, clarity, 11, 1991;sect C:1, 16. [12]Oppenheimer J. Doctors on TV and context of the message delivered and for the impact of talk shows say viewers and practices benefit. Medical that message. Consider the role of physician advocates in World News. September 1991:59. [13]Kirkland D. How to contributing to the media controversies of the past decade, get your name in the newspaper or on the air. Am Med ie, artificial hearts, interferon and interleukin 2, News. September 2, 1988:13. [14]Buenaflor M. What is a tetrahydroaminoacridine in Alzheimer’s disease, tissue gatekeeper to do? Medical World News. July 1991:66. plasminogen activator in coronary artery disease, and Gary Schwitzer Mr Schwitzer was formerly the medical chronic fatigue syndrome. Were these all merely news producer-correspondent for Cable News Network, media-created controversies, or were there physician Atlanta, Ga, and is now affiliated with the Foundation for accomplices furthering public confusion in these Informed Medical Decision Making, Hanover, NH. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect those of the foundation.
In fairness, the criticisms outlined herein cannot be directed at all public relations people, at all physicians, or at all television medical journalists. However, after 17 years in television medical journalism, I know it is a fair critique of many currently engaged in the dissemination of health and/or medical science news. The spotlight should perhaps also be shined on the work of many print journalists; I chose to focus on television because I know it better.
Time can heal some of these problems. It takes time to cover a medical news beat. Television often doesn’t take that time. It usually doesn’t allow more than 90 to 120 - Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. -


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