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Home > Covering Health Issues, 6th Ed. (Updated 2012) - Table of Contents > Appendix B - Covering Health Issues for TV and Radio

Appendix B - Covering Health Issues for TV and Radio

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Content Last Updated: 4/7/2011 8:46:06 PM
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Originally written by Deborah Potter, president and executive director of NewsLab (, former network correspondent for CBS and CNN.

The vast majority of health stories on local television are medical reports about diseases, lifestyles, experimental tests and treatments. Many of these stories 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. That's why we are offering the following tips to help you tackle these stories and make them both interesting and understandable to your audience. While these tips are written with television reporters in mind, many of them apply just as well to radio reporters.


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 Susan Dentzer, formerly of PBS, "is to go out and find the person whose plight encapsulates at least some of the issues." However, finding people who are willing to go on camera is often difficult. Some reporters have had success in finding participants by working through special interest groups.

Choose an expert who can speak simply
Find an expert who can explain complex issues simply. One way to do this is to ask potential experts if they are comfortable being called by their first name. A PBS producer uses this as a simple litmus test for finding experts who are willing to forego technical language. (You can to learn more about the Alliance for Health Reform’s Find-an-Expert Service for reporters at

Use simple language yourself
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 similarly. For example, don't ask about morbidity rates; ask how many people are sick. Dentzer, now editor-in-chief of Health Affairs journal, told 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 if 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." While you'll probably consult experts no matter what, you don't have to use them on camera. Instead, you can summarize their views in simple language and in less time. Remember that people are experts about their own lives, so 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 asked 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. Before setting up an interview with an expert, explain your need for video but be 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 TV." In addition, good communication between reporter and photographer is essential to making sure you have the sound bites you need. The extra effort required will pay off in time saved both during the shoot and in the editing room.

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 copy 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 the pictures are 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 anyone other than a clearly identified official. How can you be sure that someone identified as a patient really is?

Look for other video sources
JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association
, offers the JAMA Report, a downloadable  weekly video (and audio) feed related to its top story ( 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. Finally, consider using historic footage, which can show how things used to be, compared to the way they 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 that uses 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.

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
Use specific techniques to enliven the actual documents themselves, instead of creating a stand-alone graphic. Former television investigative reporter Valeri Williams says that while it's easier for graphic artists to recreate 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. Or 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
A visual analogy performed by a reporter can help explain complicated issues. 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 machine.

Vary your format
Not all health stories need to be packages. Consider on-set explainers or natural sound stories to share an experience or situation with the viewer.

Use the Web
Time constraints often limit the amount of detail broadcast stories can include, but the Web has unlimited space where you can post additional information. Put databases, survey results and other statistics on your Internet site and make them searchable, so people can easily find and compare costs and services.


Work ahead

It takes time and effort to arrange a shoot in a hospital, doctor's office, or other locations where patient privacy is an issue. Jaine Andrews, managing editor and former 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 shoot.

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. Jaine 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 presenting the story in an interesting way, it 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.

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, health insurance and nursing homes, not just about the latest diet tip or experimental treatment.

Point to ratings successes
Valeri Williams, the former investigative reporter who has probed many medical issues, says these stories can pay tremendous dividends in ratings. "I would challenge any news director in second or third place 1 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 thousands of e-mails and phone calls from viewers.


We apologize in advance if any links shown are inactive by the time you try to watch or listen to these stories. If you would like to suggest examples for the online version, please email them to

“Twice as Deadly”
WBEZ - Chicago

Several years ago, doctors and scientists faced a troubling fact: although black women in Chicago are less likely to get breast cancer than white women, they are much more likely to die from it. New research is starting to unravel the reasons why, and it's finding that the causes are woven deeply into the social fabric of the city. The program explores those findings in this special, and show that they are linked to segregation, cultural factors and policy.



“Quality of Death”
WBUR – Boston

In this radio documentary about end-of-life care in America, special correspondent Rachel Gotbaum investigates what prevents many patients from having a dignified death. From well-intentioned but maybe unwarranted medical interventions, to the pressure from family members, to the difficult decisions doctors have to make when treating elderly patients, this program delves into the challenges in America of proper end of life planning and a "respectful death."


“Sick Around America”


Frontline traveled the country studying America’s broken health care system and exploring the need for a fundamental overhaul. Features the stories of individuals driven into bankruptcy by health care bills, people unable to afford the treatment they need and others losing insurance coverage just when they need it the most.


“Health Care Anniversary: Advocates Enroll LA Families”

NBC Los Angeles

This story, on the one-year anniversary of the health reform law, looks at how the law will benefit Latino families in Los Angeles, and is already helping some.


“Crisis in Caring: California’s School Nursing Shortage”
KVIE – Sacramento

This program focuses on the critical shortage of school nurses in Northern California and its impact on students, teachers, parents and whole communities.


“With Budgets Tight, States Look to Medicaid Cuts”
PBS NewsHour
Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser explores what states are doing to reduce Medicaid expenses, and how citizens are reacting.



“My Mother’s Garden”


"My Mother's Garden" is the story of 61-year-old Eugenia Lester, whose hoarding disorder has taken a life-threatening turn. Lester lives among piles of debris and rotting garbage that have literally pushed her out of her house and into her garden. Upon learning that Eugenia is in danger of losing her home for violating city health codes, her children step in.



“Rationing Health: Who lives? Who decides?”

PRI’s The World
Some experts say to control medical costs, America must ration health care. Others argue that care is already rationed in the U.S., often in hidden ways. It’s a highly charged issue. Even the term "rationing" is subject to dispute. PRI's The World takes a global look at the topic with four perspectives from four countries.





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