MONITORING THE HEALTH
||The vast majority of health stories on local television
are medical reports: stories about diseases, lifestyles, experimental
tests and treatments. Many of them aren't even local, although
they may be "fronted" by a station's reporter or anchor.
Hundreds of newsrooms depend on feed services like Ivanhoe Broadcast
News and Medstar Television to provide their daily health reports.
Let's face it: issues like insurance coverage, prescription drug
costs and access to health care may be important but they aren't
easy to cover, especially on television and radio.
That's why we offer the following tips to help you tackle these
stories and to make them both interesting and understandable to
your audience. Check these links
for additional resources. When you see this symbol ,
click to watch story examples.
- Find a central character. The best stories are about people,
they don't just use people as an opening and/or closing anecdote.
They have what one news manager calls the "RH factor"--real
humans. "The art of getting public policy on TV," says
PBS's Susan Dentzer, "is to go out an find the person whose
plight encapsulates at least some of the issue." Finding
people who are willing to go on camera is often difficult, however.
It's important to help people understand what the story is about
and what it will look like on the air. Reporters have had success
finding participants by working through interest groups. Reported
by Susan Dentzer for PBS, this prescription
features strong central characters and expert analysis of their
- Choose a willing expert. Find an expert who can explain complex
issues simply. One way is to ask if the expert you want to speak
with is comfortable being called by his or her first name. A PBS
producer uses that question as a simple litmus test for finding
experts who are willing to forego technical language.
- Help people speak simply. Experts often speak in their own
jargon, which is virtually unintelligible to the general public.
Asking better questions can get you better sound bites. Use simple
language in your questions, so people will respond the way you
talk. Example: Don't ask about morbidity rates; ask how many people
are sick. NBC's Bob Hager says he often tells experts that what
they're saying won't work on TV. "Remind them they aren't
speaking to their colleagues," he says. Susan Dentzer of
PBS tells sources they should treat her like a very intelligent
12-year-old. "Because I'm intelligent, they won't talk down
to me," she says, "but because I'm 12, they know they
need to explain things."
- Experts may not be required. Not every story needs to include
a sound bite from a traditional "expert." You'll probably
consult experts but you don't have to use them on camera. Instead,
you can summarize their views in simple language and in less time.
Besides, people are experts about their own lives. Let them speak
about what they know. In stories about children's health, let
the viewer hear from children. But be careful to verify all information.
Dentzer has found that people are often confused about their specific
medical condition, so she asks for permission to confirm information
with their doctors and to see supporting documents.
- Shoot active interviews. Talk to people while they are doing
something connected to the story, and shoot b-roll at the same
time as the interview. If you're asking about prescription drug
costs, talk while the person sorts through their medications;
if you're discussing insurance coverage, talk while looking at
their hospital bill. Good communication between reporter and photographer
is essential to make sure you have the sound bites you want on-camera.
The extra effort required pays off in time saved both in shooting
and in the edit room. Explain your need for video before setting
up the interview but make clear that you are not asking for anything
to be arranged for your convenience. Sometimes experts are too
willing to stage activities that they think will be "good
- Avoid "wallpaper" video. Video should help viewers
understand the story, and generic or file tape does little to
achieve that goal. In fact, research suggests that when viewers
see familiar file tape they conclude that there is nothing new
about the story they are watching, and are likely to tune it out.
Shoot or obtain fresh and specific video for each story, if at
all possible, and write something that helps viewers understand
what they're looking at and why.
- Ask for home video and still photos. Home video and stills
can help to put a human face on a story, and offer context for
stories in which a main character has undergone dramatic change.
For example, a story about hospital errors could use home video
to show how a patient appeared before his or her hospitalization.
- Be careful with video news releases. VNRs can provide you with
video you couldn't get any other way. Sometimes they're worth
using, but you should ask a few questions first. Would this even
be a story if you didn't have the video? Were you working on it
already or did it just land on your desk? Whose agenda would you
be promoting if you used the video? If you do use it, identify
the source of the video, ideally both in track and in a chyron
that stays up for the duration. Be extremely cautious about using
sound from VNRs from anyone other than a clearly identified official.
How can you be sure that someone identified as a patient really
is? After all, no one knew that Sony was making up movie reviews.
- Look for other video sources. JAMA, the Journal of the American
Medical Association, offers a weekly satellite feed related to
its top story. If you can't downlink the feed, they will send
out B-roll. Many big medical groups like the American Heart Association
also have sizeable tape libraries. Researchers also shoot video
that can be used to illustrate results. And historic footage can
show how things used to be, setting up a comparison with the way
things are today.
- Consider using animated graphics. Animation can help clarify
how a complex process works. Research shows that viewers pay attention
to animations and are more likely to understand a difficult story
using animation than one using static, full-screen graphics. Consultant
Tom Dolan concludes from watching focus groups that "they
will not zap your channel" when animations are in use. This
feature for the CBS Evening News by Wyatt Andrews uses animated
graphics to make statistics come alive. Experts speak simply and
are easily understood.
- Construct graphics that show rather than tell. Graphics that
show how things relate to each other work better than plain words
and numbers. If one hospital charges twice as much as another
for the same procedure, you might use a bar graph to clearly show
the relationship between the two. If a senior citizen spends close
to half her income on prescription drugs, you could use a pill-shaped
pie chart to illustrate the ratio.
- Bring document-heavy stories to life by using specific techniques
to enliven the actual documents themselves, instead of creating
a stand-alone graphic. Former WFAA-TV reporter Valeri Williams
says that while it's easier for graphic artists to re-create the
information in a document, she insists on showing the actual document
for two reasons. "It adds legitimacy in the eyes of the viewer,
and it's one more layer of protection if I end up in court."
Use a highlighter, or selective lighting to make the important
words jump off the page. When shuffling papers, capture the natural
sound and use it. Have someone directly involved in the story
read the document, like a denial of benefits letter.
- Use analogy or metaphor. Look for a way to explain the issue
by comparing it to something else people might already have experienced.
Ask the people who know the issue best to help you find an analogy
or metaphor. What else is this problem like? Could you compare
an insurance company's decision to drop coverage for certain people
to a game of "knock-out" basketball? Finding an analogy
can lead you to pictures that will illustrate the story.
- Use "show and tell" stand-ups to explain complicated
issues. A visual analogy can often be explained best in a reporter
stand-up. Consider using props that can turn a concept into something
concrete. A managed care system that rejects patients based on
pre-existing conditions could be illustrated using a coin-sorting
- Vary your format. Not all health stories need to be packages.
Consider on-set explainers or nat-sound stories to share an experience
or situation with the viewer.
- Work ahead. It takes time and effort to arrange to shoot in
hospitals, doctors' offices, and other locations where patient
privacy is an issue. Jaine Andrews, anchor and health reporter
at KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, SD, says she began planning a series
on heart attacks three months in advance of the target airdate.
This gave her time to meet with the hospital's marketing department,
cardiac physicians, and ER staff, setting ground rules for the
- Share your plan. Involve photojournalists and producers early
on in discussions about what the story will show and why it matters.
Let the people you will be featuring know what you're doing, as
well. Andrews posted notices throughout the hospital explaining
why cameras were present and stating that anyone could request
that they not be included in the video.
- Explain the significance. Managers who are used to thinking
of health stories as reports on medical "breakthroughs"
need to know why a "policy" issue deserves airtime.
Make a good pitch to get these stories on. Point out that stories
about health care costs and coverage are of almost universal interest,
unlike "disease-of-the-day" reports. They also affect
people's pocketbooks. And because you will be telling them in
an interesting way, they won't fit anyone's preconceived notion
of a dull policy story.
- Find the local angle. Health policy stories affect people in
your community. If you look, you can find local groups that are
actively involved in just about every aspect of health policy.
an hour-long special reported by Hagit Limor of WCPO in Cincinnati,
examines why doctors are leaving the city in record numbers. The
strong local focus makes this program matter to local viewers.
- Highlight viewer interest. Collect and use survey results that
make clear how much viewers care about health care costs and coverage.
A NewsLab survey of self-described
light TV viewers asked what kinds of stories might make them watch
more often. Health reports ranked just behind education as the
topic of greatest interest, but respondents defined the health
beat more broadly than many stations do. They wanted to know about
good and bad doctors, about health insurance and nursing homes,
not just about the latest diet tip or experimental treatment.
- Point to ratings successes. Valeri Williams, an investigative
reporter who has probed medical issues for WFAA-TV, says these
stories can pay tremendous dividends in ratings. "I would
challenge any news director in second or third place [in the ratings]
to let a reporter work on a health investigation for a few weeks
and see what difference those nights, properly promoted, make
in the book." Williams has investigated government oversight
of vaccines and the performance record of HMOs, topics that drew
hundreds of emails and phone calls from viewers.