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Is the Press Trying to Trick Me? (and other concerns for doctors who talk to the media)

Sep 04, 2013 01:07PM ● By MED Editor
Alex Strauss Physicians and the Press

I can’t tell you the number of times that, heading into an interview with a physician, just before I gave the signal to my photographer to start recording, the doctor leaned across the desk and said, “Now, no trick questions, OK?” This was inevitably followed by a nervous chuckle.

          The light-hearted nature of the delivery notwithstanding, not only does a comment like this subtly undermine the rapport you want to establish with the person who is going to share your words with their audience, but it speaks to a deep misunderstanding and public distrust of the news media largely perpetrated by – who else? – the media.

          Despite what you may have seen on prime time television, read in a novel, or seen in a movie, reporters are almost never out to get you. With the possible exception of investigative journalists – and, presumably, you are going to be well aware of it if you are being ‘investigated’ – the vast majority of reporters are totally on the up and up and devoted to journalistic excellence. (Or at least competence, depending on how quickly the deadline is looming.) For a reporter, the bare minimum required in order to be considered ‘competent’ is getting the story right. Putting your source on the spot is definitely not the way to do that.

          In all of my training as a medical journalist (including grad school and years’ worth of national conferences) and more than two decades in the field, I never once encountered a health reporting colleague whose intensions were less than responsible. Health reporters and the news organizations that employ them generally want to do their jobs efficiently under time pressure, get their facts straight, avoid the influence of third parties (i.e., advertisers), and disseminate health information that will improve the lives of their intended audience. Sound familiar?


What If the Story is Wrong?

          Like all humans, sometimes reporters do get it wrong. Without the benefit of medical education, or, in some cases, even health reporting experience, and with a producer or editor breathing down their neck to finish the story or article NOW, mistakes happen. Whether it was a disconnect between you and the interviewer, insufficient time on the reporter’s part to study and understand the subject matter, or simply shoddy workmanship, when a story or article in which you played a role is wrong, it can feel like a betrayal.

          While false health or medical information should never stand uncorrected, it is important to remind yourself, before you make the call or send the email, that the error was almost certainly unintentional. All journalists worth their salt will absolutely want to know if they had their facts wrong, will be appropriately contrite, and will make every effort to publish a correction. This is not the time to disavow any future involvement with the media or undermine the work you’ve done to attract their attention in the first place. On the contrary, it is just further evidence that the media, and the public they serve, need the medical knowledge you possess.

          If, after you explain the error via email or phone call, you still do not feel satisfied that the reporter understands or acknowledges the mistake, you may use your discretion as to whether or not you wish to work with that particular reporter again or whether it is worth it to take your complaint up the chain of command in the news organization. Just as not everyone is cut out for medicine, not every journalist can be a great health reporter.

NOTE: Failing to fully grasp or express the nuances of a complex medical topic does not necessarily constitute irresponsible reporting. Remember, it is the journalist’s job to find that sometimes-elusive nugget of relevance and express it at the level of her audience. Depending on the level of sophistication of that audience, that often entails condensing and simplifying complex information. Would it fly at a medical conference? No. But is it necessary to help the audience hear and understand the importance of the information?  Absolutely.  

“Physician and the Press: a Doctor’s Guide to Working with the Media” By Alex Strauss will be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other book sellers this winter.