In Depth

Newsmags Still Out Front

Network Stalwarts Keep Breaking Ground With World-Class Reports

It was a spontaneous act of maternal nurturing that resonated round the world. Actress Salma Hayek, the mother of an infant daughter, decided to breast-feed an ailing infant boy in Sierra Leone as ABC News “Nightline” cameras captured the moment.

Ms. Hayek, along with “Nightline” anchor Cynthia McFadden and her crew, was in the impoverished African nation with UNICEF, which is spearheading a major drive to inoculate against tetanus, a preventable disease that kills thousands of children.

“It’s always difficult to be in a place where people are suffering, particularly kids. It was a very painful yet hopeful trip,” said Ms. McFadden, who was briefed by the minister of health about the country’s dubious distinction of having the highest child mortality rate in the world; one in five children dies before the age of 5 and more than 20% of those deaths are caused by tetanus.

“The dedication of the people we met and their commitment is so intense, and their success is terrifically optimistic in that regard,” Ms. McFadden said.

When it comes to groundbreaking health journalism, television network newsmagazine programs use their resources to devote months of research to report on medical breakthroughs and often travel the globe to bring stories to viewers.

“Dateline NBC” anchor Ann Curry went to Serbia to investigate another heart-wrenching story involving children, documenting how an archaic health care system—coupled with cultural stigma—dooms children born with mental disabilities to live their entire lives in underfunded and understaffed institutions without proper medical care.

“There are places in the world where the level of suffering is difficult to fully fathom,” Ms. Curry said. She and her crew were able to videotape shocking conditions in three institutions in the eastern European country, which was formerly part of Yugoslavia. They then presented their findings to Serbian officials, who vowed to change things.

“Outrage is what causes change to occur,” Ms. Curry said. “In the United States, we once had a shameful history in how we treated mentally ill people, as all nations once did. They should at least be able to count on fundamental care and respect.”

Improving the conditions also involves creating awareness in a culture that looks upon disabilities as shameful, so much so that there are many cases in which children are whisked away right after they’re born, and their parents never get to see them.

“Children deserve to be with their parents. There are many of these children who don’t need 24-hour care,” Ms Curry said. “It was a tragedy.”

Martin Bashir, one of “Nightline’s” anchors, last month broke a story about an experimental treatment for obesity that gives hope to thousands of people battling what often seems like an insurmountable condition.

In the piece, he chronicled the saga of Carol Poe, a morbidly overweight woman who underwent the most radical treatment ever devised for obesity—brain surgery. She is only the second person in the United States to have the surgery, called deep brain stimulation or DBS, to combat obesity—and Mr. Bashir and his crew got exclusive access to the operating room at a West Virginia hospital.

“It was one of those moments I felt I was on the cutting edge of science,” said Mr. Bashir. “I’ve been present for surgery separating conjoined twins and a heart transplant, but I’ve never been in an operating room where someone‘s brain is being penetrated and they’re awake, and it was breathtaking and miraculous. It was a huge privilege and the cusp of something remarkable.”

Deep brain stimulation has already proved successful in treating neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, by eliminating or reducing the tremors and tics.

Surgeons believe the procedure is effective in treating behavioral problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, and now hold hope about using it to fight obesity.

The implications are immense: If hunger and satisfaction can be controlled by an electrical current in a patient’s brain, it will be a major breakthrough.

“For people who are that overweight, life is difficult,” said Mr. Bashir. “They are treated poorly in everyday life, and yet this woman is completely unembittered. Carol Poe is a remarkable woman. Twenty years ago, she had bariatric surgery, and she’s 60 now and wants to resolve the problem. She’s a well-educated, intelligent woman and the pain she felt was moving. She’s very courageous.”

“Nightline” reported on another pioneering medical procedure, using adult stem cells from bone marrow to regenerate bones. Orthopedic stem cell surgery has been practiced by only a handful of doctors nationwide, and reporter Juju Chang spoke with one of them about the hope that $250 million in new federal funding for veterans will offer wounded soldiers a chance to heal from injuries that might otherwise have left them unable to return to work or even walk.

“It’s pretty miraculous what they’re doing,” said Ms. Chang. “The word miracle is overused, but to witness what can only be described as miraculous bone regeneration was awe-inspiring. What is heartening is now all these ideas can be put to the test with stem cell treatments of every stripe.”