In Depth

Broadcaster Takes Cancer Personally

Husband’s Death Informs Couric’s Crusade for Coverage of Colon Screenings

The issue of health care journalism is important to Katie Couric, anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News.” More than almost any other high-profile television news professional, she has taken the lead in medical news coverage.

Since losing her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer in 1998, Ms. Couric has joined the fight against the country’s No. 2 cancer killer.

In March 2000, she launched the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance in association with the Entertainment Industry Foundation and Lilly Tartikoff; the organization aims to fund new medical research in colorectal cancer and to conduct educational programs encouraging the prevention and early detection of the disease through proper screening. University of Michigan scientific researchers dubbed the 20% increase in colonoscopies performed in the U.S. “the Couric Effect.”

For her March 2000 series on colon cancer while she was with NBC News, Ms. Couric received the George Foster Peabody Award and the network received the 2001 RTNDA-Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence.

On Sept. 5, 2006, Ms. Couric became the first female solo anchor of a weekday network evening news broadcast.

For this special report on the Association of Health Care Journalists conference, Ms. Couric fielded questions from TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about health news coverage on her broadcast and around the TV dial, and discussed her ongoing efforts to raise awareness of colon cancer and get the word out that it can be successfully treated if caught early.

TelevisionWeek: How involved are you with the decisions about covering health care issues on the “CBS Evening News”?
Katie Couric: I am very involved, because I am so interested in medical issues. I often flag stories, suggest series and work with our producers and medical correspondents. Because I had to learn about so many complex medical treatments and then synthesize them during my husband Jay’s illness, I feel I have become very adept at making these stories accessible and understandable. They are critically important to the viewing public.

TVWeek: What skills and sensitivity do you need to tell health care stories that are effective?
Ms. Couric: I think clarity is critical. Medical information can be so complicated you almost need an M.D. to understand it. So being able to convey it in an understandable, unintimidating way is vital. Doctors sometimes talk in “medspeak,” so it sometimes requires several tries to get them to speak English! Also, these stories often require talking to someone about life-and-death situations, and they are fraught with emotional landmines. But these stories work best when they feature a human face. Reporters must be caring, compassionate and empathetic.

TVWeek: What are the issues about colon cancer and colonoscopies that people need to know and understand?
Ms. Couric: Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in this country. It has a cure rate of approximately 90% if detected early. With recommended screening and early detection, this is one cancer that is not only highly curable but also highly preventable. Experts say the most comprehensive test to prevent or detect the disease early is a colonoscopy. In one exam, a cancerous or potentially cancerous polyp can be detected and removed before it grows, penetrates the colon wall and spreads throughout the body, metastasizing to other organs. All insurance companies should cover colonoscopy, and many do.

TVWeek: Do most approve the procedure?
Ms. Couric: Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia require that insurance companies cover screening colonoscopies for anyone age 50 or over. I know my home state of Virginia does, because my sister Emily sponsored the legislation when she was a state senator there. Fifty is when you should begin to get screened if you are at average risk, but if you have certain risk factors, such as a family history [of colon cancer], you should talk to your doctor about being screened earlier. People should keep in mind that only about 25% of all cases involve a family history, which means, of course, about 75% do not.

TVWeek: What should someone look for if they’re not sure?
Ms. Couric: If you experience any symptoms (such as bloating, a change in bowel habits, blood in stool, rectal bleeding), immediately discuss them with a doctor. Make sure you have a doctor who is receptive to your concerns. If you have rectal bleeding and your doctor tells you not to worry, that it’s only a hemorrhoid, find another doctor. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard from people who didn’t get diagnosed in a timely fashion because their doctors were blasé. You must be your own best advocate. And for those who put it off, and don’t want to get screened, let me quote our CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook, who says, “It sure beats chemo.” You may think it can’t happen to you, but since some 148,000 people are diagnosed every single year, clearly, it can.

TVWeek: When you took the lead about raising colon cancer awareness and had a colonoscopy done before age 50—the age recommended by most doctors—were you criticized, and how do you respond to that criticism?
Ms. Couric: The point of my televised colonoscopy was to demystify the procedure, and I think we helped to do that. Our recommendation is always for people to talk with their doctor about when they should be screened.

TVWeek: Do you believe that there has been a complacency about cancer because so many people believe it’s now a treatable disease?
Ms. Couric: I think people are busy and they don’t want to spend one second thinking about their own mortality. I don’t think people are complacent, I think they get busy. But prevention and early detection are so critical, talking to your doctor about getting screened has to be at the top of everyone’s “to do” list.

TVWeek: Since this issue of TelevisionWeek is being distributed to the Association of Health Care Journalists at its conference, what message would you want to send to reporters and journalists on this beat, in particular TV reporters?
Ms. Couric: I think it’s very important to do your own homework when it comes to medical releases and information. Sometimes studies are unreliable or misinterpreted, and it’s a real disservice to the viewing and reading public if you don’t extensively study and report on these stories yourself. You need to be thorough, skeptical and talk to a variety of people before coming to any one conclusion, because there are certainly passionate disagreements in the medical community on a whole host of topics. I think this is an area where our responsibility to the public needs to be taken very, very seriously.