In Depth

Potter: Stick to the Point

A Journalism Expert Will Give Tips at AHCJ

What are the tools and techniques that news professionals need when they approach tackling the daunting, dynamic subject of health care?

That’s the question on the minds of reporters and writers on the health beat, and at the Health Journalism 2008 conference in Washington, answers will be provided in a session led by Deborah Potter, executive director of Newslab, an online resource center for television and radio newsrooms focused on improving journalism.

As an expert in the field, Ms. Potter said the first and perhaps the most critical element a reporter must bring to a story is focus.

“You have to have a clear focus for the story, which means that you need to know exactly what your story is about,” said Ms. Potter, who served as executive director of RTNDF, the research and training arm of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, in 2003-04. “The session I’m doing at Health Journalism 2008 is about how reporters can write better stories about health. I think all reporters who work on complicated subjects face the problem of trying to tell stories in an interesting way that is also understandable and accurate. It’s always a balancing act.”

Television reporters covering the health beat are becoming more integral to broadcasts as the issue of health rises in importance to the public. Viewers are demanding more information about real conditions and fewer wonder-drug announcements.

“One of the problems with health coverage is that it attempts to be the ‘disease of the week.’ You know, ‘medical breakthroughs.’ But people really care about health policy, although they wouldn’t say it that way,” said Ms. Potter. “One of the huge stories is the whole question of insurance—managed care, do we have a universal coverage system, what does that mean? Those are enormously important stories, and a lot of health care journalists don’t see them as medical news, but in fact that’s what matters to most people.”

Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary “Sicko” was all about the health care system in America. But Ms. Potter does not see a connection between that film and what TV news professionals are doing on the air.

“I wouldn’t compare them. I think that those stations that have a reporter that focuses on health and medicine are doing a better job covering important issues in their local communities that you can’t do if you’re just operating from press releases,” she said. “There are a whole lot of stations that actually don’t have a health and medicine reporter, but they might have an anchor who ‘fronts’ health stories, and that’s a different kettle of fish. I think those stations do less local, original coverage than stations that have designated reporters who cover health, not necessarily exclusively, but that’s certainly part of that person’s job.”

Unlike other beats where journalists have to dig for information, often a health care field is overflowing with data, reports and studies on an issue. For a story about diabetes, for example, a Google search leads to 120 million items. That’s a tremendous amount of information, which can be daunting.

“Reporters have a tendency to collect a lot of information and then try to put it all in the same story,” said Ms. Potter. “The story can become unintelligible to the viewers, and not every story can tell everything about any given issue. A story needs to have a very clear point, and then based on that, reporters need to decide what to effectively leave out of the story and still tell it well.”

There’s another session at the conference that also talks about this issue, “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Statistics: How to Interpret the Evidence,” which gives the “nuts-and-bolts tools for interpreting clinical trials and ideas for stories that take a critical look at medical research.”

Specific terminology related to health coverage—phrases like number needed to treat, all-cause mortality and relative risk reduction versus absolute risk reduction—will be broken down for journalists to understand and interpret effectively.

Television news reporters, in particular, face a challenge that print journalists rarely do. The TV reporter has a limited amount of time to tell the story and make the point. Ms. Potter suggests that TV newscasters use hidden minutes in the broadcast to clarify their storytelling.

“There is a lot of time in a newscast that is not the reporter’s story, but it can be related to the reporter’s story. That’s why I really encourage reporters to think about the anchor lead as the first part of their story. That’s a very useful place to put important information,” said Ms. Potter.

She tells reporters to use the anchor lead to establish the premise for the story, which they can then deliver in the 60 or 90 seconds given.

“You can set up a story well with the anchor, and not duplicate information in your package,” she said.

The reporter can use the lead-in and go on from there and explain the details in his story. That said, Ms. Potter asserted TV news is not the optimum media for health care reporting.

“It’s not a medium that’s designed to go deep on most occasions. It’s not what it’s good at, which is one reason to, if you can, give the viewers a nibble and say, for the full meal go to our Web site. That’s a really useful opportunity for all journalists, but especially journalists who cover complicated fields like health. I guess you can make that argument about all TV news. It’s all just a nibble, a tease.”

More and more, the Web is a way to augment TV news reports.

“It’s enormously useful, using the Web to supplement what you do on-air. Too many stations put the same information online that they do on television, and that’s a real waste of an opportunity,” said Ms. Potter. “The Web cannot only go deeper, it can provide original source material, so that anyone interested can read the study. It can be an opportunity to provide interactive elements that are much more engaging to a user than just text. You can put extensive interviews online, and there are examples of health reporters doing that around the country.”

In addition to Ms. Potter’s advice to reporters, the conference has another session specifically about new media. “Multimedia Tools for Telling Stories” will talk about blogging, Web video, podcasting and more.

Ms. Potter is a strong proponent of new media, in particular Web video.

“Television is a video industry. We’re video people and we ought to be able to show more and better video online then we can in the confines of a 30-minute newscast. I think reporters who think of the Web all day long are going to be able to use it in ways that are most useful to the audience. You can’t make it an afterthought. You can’t come back at the end of the day and say, ‘Oh, shoot, I had to put something on the Web,’” she said. “But reporters can, for example, provide extra Web video where they might do a top-five list of symptoms, or something like that when doing a story on a particular illness or treatment.”

She continued. “They can do a Web listing of what people need to know. They can do guided tours or vignettes that you can put online that are not the same as what you’re going to put on your newscast. So you need to shoot while you’re out there.”

Overall, today’s TV news health reporters are not the talking heads of days gone by, the newscasters who read the press release and reported the statistics. There are important issues to be addressed and news pros must be creative, aggressive and intelligent to cover the beat effectively.

What do they need more than anything else to put it all together?

“They want new tools to do their jobs better,” said Ms. Potter. “They want to be able to read and analyze research reports more quickly and efficiently. They want new ideas for how to use the Web, but they also want really good, solid briefings on the big stories that are coming up. They want to deepen their knowledge. It’s both skills and knowledge that journalists seek when they attend these conferences."