Targeted Treatment

Mar 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

It’s been 20 years since I joined the health beat full-time as a medical correspondent for CNN. So it’s an appropriate moment for me to reflect on some of the important changes and trends in television and the coverage of health and medical news over the years.

In the late 1980s, CNN was the only all-news network that mattered. Our Saturday morning “HealthWeek” wrap-up program was the highest-rated cable TV show in its time slot. Of course, it didn’t hurt that there were no Saturday morning news shows yet on the broadcast networks; kids’ cartoons still dominated the airwaves.

Back in the days when CNN founder Ted Turner displayed his loyalty to the fledgling cable TV industry by posing in cowboy garb and holding a guitar for a billboard that proclaimed, “I Was Cable When Cable Wasn’t Cool,” many of us believed the growth of television channels would mean more time to tell stories with context. Time to explain caveats and side effects of new medical treatments, not just the wonders promised in press release headlines. Time to spell out the specific strengths and limitations of health studies, and to avoid whipsawing viewers with research snippets that seem to contradict each other, simply because key details were left on the cutting-room floor.

We were right—for a while. Twenty years ago, the typical length of a CNN medical story was almost 3 minutes, and even longer in the weekend wrap-up program. But as cable penetration increased and channels proliferated, a strange thing happened: Time contracted. Between CNN and Headline News, we were transmitting 48 hours of news a day, 14 days a week, but we were told to trim story length to 2:30—then 2:15—then 2 minutes. As we spiraled downward, I bailed out.

Cable surrendered to TV’s tendency to churn out quick snacks rather than balanced meals. According to an analysis of health reports on almost 3,000 local newscasts, half the stories were shorter than 33 seconds. This blizzard of medical voiceovers doesn’t inform; it dazes. It’s no wonder some surveys of TV viewers indicate they’re more likely to learn important health information from the fictionalized plots of primetime entertainment shows than from the skeletal blurbs on the local news.

Of course, length isn’t the primary measure of a good story. The first requirement is a good journalist. But with stations trying to keep costs down, editorial experience and time to research and produce original reports are squeezed. It hits the health beat hard. Almost any cub reporter can cover a fire or car crash, and when he’s sent to the school board or city hall, his stories are edited by supervisors who used to handle those beats. But health reporters often have no experienced mentors in newsrooms. And when stations cut veterans to trim budgets or kowtow to focus groups, they lose journalists with hard-earned expertise at evaluating medical research and sniffing out industry hype. When the new kids get tossed onto the health beat, do they know the critical difference between absolute and relative risk calculations, or how to find the patients who didn’t do so well, in order to balance the success stories offered up by PR staff?

In too many newsrooms, it seems no one knows or cares about the difference between a news story and a video news release. Last spring, the Center for Media and Democracy identified 77 TV stations that aired VNRs without disclosure. A follow-up report six months later identified 46 stations that had aired at least one VNR in their newscasts.

Tipping the Scales

What’s more, stations around the country are cutting deals with local hospitals and other advertisers that give sponsors influence over story selection and content, including interviewing only the sponsor’s doctors for designated stories. Medical reporting seems particularly prone to such deals. Can you imagine a regular automotive feature that was shot only in the showrooms of the sponsoring dealer or manufacturer?

Despite my apparent nostalgia for the CNN medical team of years past, that unit was created through a sponsorship deal with a pharmaceutical company. Although I never received instructions to favor a sponsor’s product, stories that were favorable or neutral toward drugs or devices were guaranteed to air at least three times. Stories that highlighted problems with medicines or procedures had to compete for airtime, and sometimes lost.

Even when sponsorship deals and time crunches aren’t distorting the editorial process, I think the common definitions of health news need attention. There is an emphasis on the newest pills and procedures, an obsession with the latest research bulletin. Of course, to be news, information has got to be new, but it also should be relevant to viewers. Most of the stories that start “a new study says” contain little that viewers can use in their daily lives.

Indeed, regular national surveys of public attention to news stories commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicate people are less interested in stories about specific diseases and treatments than they are in news about bigger policy issues that affect all of us. That finding runs contrary to common newsroom judgments, but it makes sense when you think about it. How much do you really care about some incremental advance against a disease you don’t have, especially since it may not be available for years, if it survives the testing process?

I don’t want to say everything’s going downhill or that everything was better “in the old days.” Good journalism has always had a tough time surviving in the news business. And there are some hopeful signs. The growth of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), founded less than a decade ago and now boasting almost 1,000 members, shows how many reporters and editors care about the quality of their work …mdash;and want to improve.

Critiques of health and medical reporting can be a sign that people are seeking solutions. A new Web site, www.healthnewsreview.org, grades health reports in print and on TV, thus helping to set quality standards. The site’s publisher, Gary Schwitzer, also helped draft AHCJ’s Statement of Principles. A long time ago, Gary hired me into the CNN medical unit. He’s still trying to teach us how to do better.

Although the Internet, wi-fi PDAs, cell phones and other devices are the sparkling new toys of the media world, most people still get their news from television. And TV newsrooms create brand-name portals to news and information on other platforms. It is up to the managers and reporters at each station and network to determine each day how much that news is worth.

Andrew Holtz reported for CNN from 1980-97. He is the author of “The Medical Science of House, M.D.” and writes a column on medicine and the media for Oncology Times. Mr. Holtz is a board member and former president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. He can be reached at holtzreport@juno.com.

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