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Rx for News

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Stephanie Stricklen wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into 18 months ago when she accepted the job of medical reporter at KGW-TV, the NBC affiliate in Portland, Ore. A general assignment reporter, Ms. Stricklen said she was “pretty tentative” about taking the position.
Now, “It would take wild horses to drag me away from it,” she said. “It’s one of the smartest moves I’ve made. Medical reporting is fascinating. It keeps me busy, interested and passionate about my job.”
She’s not alone. While medical reporting has been around for decades, events such as the 2001 anthrax scare and the current SARS outbreak have kicked medical coverage into high gear at many stations around the country, especially when combined with the aging of the baby boomer segment.
“Boomers are the 500-pound gorilla,” said Max Gomez, medical reporter at WNBC-TV, the NBC owned-and-operated station in New York. “What happens to them is news simply because of the number of people affected.”
Dr. Gomez, who has a Ph.D in neurophysiology, is marking his 23rd year in medical reporting in the New York and Philadelphia markets. “It was relatively rare when I started,” he said. “There was nowhere near the kind of interest and coverage you see today.”
The Professional Edge
While Dr. Gomez believes the maxim that any good reporter should be able to report on any topic is “true up to a point,” he thinks medical professionals hold an edge in reporting medical news. “Aspects of medical reporting have become increasingly complicated and difficult and the subject matter more arcane. This requires a similar if not greater degree of sophistication and knowledge of the field from reporters trained as clinicians, physicians and researchers.”
Still, Dr. Gomez’s background is the exception rather than the rule. Most medical reporters are drawn from the ranks, as Ms. Stricklen was.
Angela Vierville, medical and general assignment reporter at KSAT-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Antonio, has been covering medical news for the past 20 years. “It’s probably the most rewarding type of reporting for me because it really helps people,” she said. “I get more feedback from medical stories than anything else.”
Mary Ann Childers is an anchor/reporter/medical editor at CBS O&O WBBM-TV, Chicago, and spent 10 years as the medical editor for WLS-TV, the market’s ABC O&O, before that. “My initial reports were a happy accident,” said Ms. Childers, who comes from a family of medical professionals. “I got an assignment, enjoyed it very much and found it intriguing. Medical reporting touches people’s lives.”
Regardless of who is reporting it, medical news has become a key component of daily newscasts at many stations. Issues such as bioterrorism and the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak routinely catapult medical reporting into the headlines.
“When medical news is the breaking news-anthrax, Rudy [Giuliani] gets prostate cancer, the possible toxic effects of an oil barge explosion on Staten Island-the anchor or a reporter covers the hard story, then I do the debriefing,” Dr. Gomez said. “A former news director said during the anthrax outbreak that `the rest of the news show scares the bejeezus out of you, then it’s Dr. Max’s job to come on and talk people off the ledge.”’
Medical reports often air daily, in branded franchises, during early evening newscasts. They may be supplemented by video news releases, national stories from network feeds or packages from services. Late-night or early morning newscasts sometimes repeat reports or run a package of top medical headlines and video clips.
Like other beat reporters, many medical reporters have just 90 seconds to tell their story, although Dr. Gomez fills four to five minutes on his News 4 Your Health segment on WNBC’s 5 p.m. newscast. Ms. Childers gets about two minutes in the 5 p.m. newscast for her digest-style report, which often includes a main story and several shorter ones.
Ms. Stricklen also gets up to two minutes for her report. “My producer understands the difficulty of summing up these complicated stories in 90 seconds, so I get a minute-forty-five or two minutes,” she says. “You have to simplify but not dumb down.”
Medical news comprises a seemingly endless array of topics, from local to international. “If I had the strength and stamina, we could have a great medical story on every one of our newscasts,” Ms. Childers said.
Health producer/reporter Audrey Desrosiers of WPRI-TV/WNAC-TV, the CBS-Fox duopoly in Providence, R.I., strives to put a local face on her medical reporting. “Local news is always trying to get more local,” she said. “We have a lot of hospitals for a small state, and we’re close to Boston, the medical capital of the region.”
Ms. Desrosiers has interviewed Dr. Andrew Artenstein, a nationally known expert in infectious diseases and biodefense who’s affiliated with Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island in Pawtucket, and visited with patients participating in local AIDS vaccine trials.
After a Rhode Island nightclub fire, which claimed 100 lives this year, she did several mental-health-related stories for families and friends of the victims.
Finding the Local Spin
Ms. Stricklen looks for national stories that also have a local angle. A story in USA Today about how pets, who are susceptible to many biological agents, could be the first to alert officials of bioterrorism prompted a report on Portland, Ore.-headquartered Banfield Pet Hospital to discuss the standardized reporting system that allows its 310 veterinary hospitals in 43 states to track outbreaks of disease and identify clusters.
On the other hand, reports by Dr. Gomez “don’t always have to have a local spin.” He finds that medical news travels well. “What affects people in California will probably affect people in New York too.” For example, a story he recently did on using pure oxygen topically to promote wound healing came from Ohio State Medical Center.
While the emphasis at WBBM is usually on the medical news of the day, Chicago’s many medical institutions often make news, Ms. Childers said. For example, a study from Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Wellness Institute examined the benefits of people and pets exercising together-a neat twist on working out with a buddy.
Medical reports are also a hot area for sweeps periods. “It’s supersized comes sweeps,” Ms. Stricklen said. “We look for a variety of stories-interesting I-didn’t-know-that stories, investigative stories, fun stories, serious stories.”
In addition to her daily reports, Ms. Desrosiers does about 15 preassigned sweeps pieces for the 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. newscast.
For Dr. Gomez sweeps mean multiple special reports, often 21/2 to four minutes long, for Live at Five and the 11 p.m. newscast. “It has to be something that’s promotable and a little meatier” than a typical story, he said. His special report in February on multiracial health issues, “a topic you don’t hear a lot about,” did “huge numbers on the last day of the book” for Five.
Sweeps may also generate a series of reports on a single topic, a format that’s becoming increasingly rare at other times of the year.
Medical reporting appears to be on a growth track as an aging population takes more interest in health issues. “Medical reporting provides a very valuable service,” Ms. Stricklen said. “We can reach a lot of people with important information in a very short amount of time.”
“Over the last four or five years the pace of discoveries and the speed at which things are moving from the bench top to the bedside has been just remarkable,” Dr. Gomez said. “Things that we thought were unapproachable, unfixable and undoable are getting to be approachable, fixable and doable. And we haven’t even seen the payoff from the human genome project. It’s a truly exciting time for medical reporting.”