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Vol. LVIII, No. 5
March 10, 2006

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Health Beat TV Reporters Visit NIH

Three veteran network television reporters whose coverage emphasizes health and medicine visited NIH on Feb. 16. They had several take-home messages for the NIH communication community, scientists and other NIH leaders, who invited them to share interests at a Wilson Hall meeting.

Local newscasts are unabashedly fond of the titillation factor in health stories, noted Doreen Gentzler of NBC's Channel 4. "My editors love stories about new cosmetic procedures, from full-body lifts to teeth whitening and everything in between, and any story with a 'medical miracle' angle. They also like anything that would frighten our audience into watching our newscast: 'Is your dental floss toxic?'"

  Three veteran network television reporters (from l) Doreen Gentzler of NBC’s Channel 4, Lisa Stark of ABC News and Susan Dentzer of PBS discuss coverage of health issues during a Feb. 16 NIH health communications forum organized by the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, OD.

More seriously, she added, her interests tend toward stories "where we learn something new, something that makes us say, 'No kidding?' We also love to talk to interesting people, and there's no shortage of them at NIH." Also likely to grab Gentzler's attention are stories featuring brave patients fighting long odds and "stories that help people prevent illness and have a better quality of life."

PBS's Susan Dentzer says her network has more high-brow interests, but conceded, "There is a stunning lack of knowledge about science in the general public." Lamenting a lack of appealing communicators along science's front lines, she nonetheless pleaded with story sources, "Please speak to me as if I'm an intelligent 12-year-old — then you won't lose the PBS audience."

Lisa Stark of ABC News, who covers the regulatory scene in Washington, occasionally does health pieces but operates at a dizzying pace; her assignments can change four times within 24 hours, and her lengthiest stories wrap up in less than 2 minutes. The average viewer of nightly network news is 60-65, she said, which largely determines story content.

The TV reporters all occasionally rely on NIH for stories and were largely satisfied with how they are accommodated here. Welcoming them was NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who urged newscasters to help convey the message that the nation's investment in medical research has massive payoffs for all Americans.

The $120 per American that NIH has invested in AIDS research over the past few decades has turned back the tide of the epidemic, he said. The total cancer death rate has declined for the first time since President Nixon launched the war on cancer in 1971, he related, and at a cost of only $250 per person. The rate of disability due to arthritis and other musculoskeletal disorders has dropped 30 percent in the past 20 years, at an investment of only $20 per person, Zerhouni said. "That's the message we need to convey. We are probably the very best thing this nation has done — and we're poised to do better."

He told the reporters, "The causes of the 10 most common diseases will be known within the next 2 years.A complete transformation of medicine is coming."

Zerhouni acknowledged the difficulty of presenting new and difficult scientific news in easy sound bites. "You can't one-line science," he said, "and yet you have to do it."

But by bottom-lining science — calling attention to the relatively little invested per person in medical research for big payoffs — he offered a compelling story idea.

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