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Reliable Sources

Medical Reporting Gets Negative Diagnosis; Are the Media Fairly Depicting the Philadelphia Police Beating?

Aired July 15, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Captured on videotape: Are the media fairly depicting the Philadelphia police beating?

Dangerous liaison: Ken Starr's former spokesman on trial for lying about leaking to the "New York Times."

And prescription for trouble: Medical reporting gets a negative diagnosis.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

And joining us here in Washington, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. We'll get to our medical segment in a few moments. But Tom Rosenstiel, two big stories this week.

The first, I guess everybody has now seen the videotape of the Philadelphia police confrontation with Thomas Jones who had shot one of the officers during a car chase before that footage was taken by a news helicopter.

Is TV, by playing this over and over, casting this as kind of a Rodney King replay even though the facts are very different?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, DIRECTOR, PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM: Well, ABC even showed the two pieces of video together, Rodney King and Philadelphia. There's that, and there's the fact that we think when we're watching something on TV that we're seeing it real.

We don't realize that what we're seeing is limited by the vantage point of when the camera was turned on and what wasn't seen by the camera. And we're struggling with that in this because we don't know the meaning of this.

KURTZ: I couldn't tell from looking at this overhead footage the extent to which the suspect was resisting while they were kicking him and so forth. You can't tell how much of a struggle he's putting up.

ROSENSTIEL: Or where they're kicking.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Well, think for example, I've been told that the three cable networks showed this bit of film 27 times in the course of one hour starting at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday right after it happened.

I think one of the problems -- what do you think, Tom? -- that context is not offered with the film. You're being shown a raw episode. It's being flung into the face of America. And I thought "Nightline" on Thursday night did a very, very careful examination of the film and put it in context, what had happened leading up to this terrible explosion that took place at that particular moment that we're all seeing on film.

ROSENSTIEL: The problem is in an environment where everything can be live, the tendency is to put it out there and let people see it and decide for themselves. It puts us often in a passive role as journalists rather than saying, "Well, let's go find out what happened, find out what it means, find out the parts that are missing." No, let's just put it up and have a talk show about it.

KALB: Yeah, that's right.

KURTZ: Well, it's...

ROSENSTIEL: Like this.

KURTZ: ... it's arresting video, obviously draws eyeballs in, as they say in the industry. Tom, just briefly, the "Philadelphia Daily News" ran the headline "Hello America."

And there have been lots of commentary about, oh, this is tarnishing the image of the city as it gets ready for the Republican Convention. Isn't that a little premature for journalists to be reaching that conclusion?

ROSENSTIEL: Way premature. You know, again the tendency here is not to find out what's going on in the story but to sort of slot stories into stereotypical metaphors. This is this, this is an example of this, this is a part of this trend.

KURTZ: What's the political impact? OK, speaking of political impact, let's turn to the other story, which is Charles Bakaly going on trial here in Washington this week. He, of course, was the spokesman for former Independent Counsel Ken Starr accused of lying about whether he leaked to the "New York Times" back in early '99, story about whether Starr had decided he had the authority at least to indict President Clinton.

And I'm wondering, our viewers out there must be wondering, well, the "New York Times" knows what Bakaly said. They know the truth of the story. But they can't report it or they won't report it even though Bakaly is facing the possibility of going to prison and has acknowledged that he was the source. Should that in some way release the "Times" from its pledge of confidentiality?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, it's a strange thing. You read the "Times" and you wonder, what does the reporter who wrote this story know that he's not telling you, or that his editor is not telling him or her?

I think some amount of disclosure here to the extent that they can do something would be helpful because how can you avoid having this in the back of your mind? On the other hand, we're in a situation as reporters where we want these people to leak, and it's up to them to say no to us.

Now the point in the Bakaly case is he's not being prosecuted for leaking to the press...

KALB: That's right.

ROSENSTIEL: ... He's being prosecuted for lying to the court about whether he did that.

KALB: But there's something very spooky about this. Here, as you suggest, as you both suggest, is the "New York Times" that could answer the question immediately if it chose to go public the conversation that someone had with Don Van Atta (ph) at the "Times."

It says it will not go public. It will safeguard its own sources. So this is kind of eerie. There is the "Times" pivoted on this.

And it raises the question, should the "Times" -- and we've discussed it, but it's worth another shot -- should the "Times" step forward and resolve this case with a disclosure? Or, as I believe, you don't say a thing because it violates the whole question.

ROSENSTIEL: I think you've got to say something. Now that something could be, "Here is why we can't say more." But some explanation of their reticence would be helpful because, as I say, you're left with this queasy feeling about they're not telling you something.

KURTZ: Well...

KALB: Tom...

KURTZ: ... go ahead.

KALB: ... no, I was going to say, the question of leaking, I mean, the idea of Washington living without leaks is impossible. It's an unnatural scenario.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Tom, what does it say about the culture of journalism that Bakaly was quoted in the story as saying he was declining to comment? He acknowledges he met or spoke with the reporter three times and gave him an internal memo. What does that tell us?

ROSENSTIEL: I think that's a really point, Howie. You've got a sentence in that story that apparently is a lie. If Bakaly, in other words, was the source for this story, then Van Atta wrote a sentence designed to mask his identity that was untrue, a sentence that said he declined to comment for the story.

If he is the source for the story, then the "Times" wrote something that's not true, knew it. And that's a problem. KURTZ: That may be a little harsh because he wasn't obviously commenting on the record. But I take your point.

We have to hold it there. Coming up, plenty of stories about new pills, vaccines, and cures that have been in news this week. But are medical journalists too anxious to report the latest advances?

That's next on RELIABLE SOURCES.



Well, new research in cancer, Alzheimer's, and AIDS have led the newscasts this week. But are the media upping their doses of medical news a bit too much?


KURTZ (voice-over): The morning headlines promise new hope against killer diseases and the latest results from promising studies. Anchors trumpet the latest pharmaceutical advances, as this lead story did on "NBC Nightly News" earlier this week.


TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Tonight, there are promising vaccines attacking what is believed to be major causes of Alzheimer's and AIDS.


KURTZ: But according to a story in last month's "New England Journal of Medicine," journalists could be raising false hopes.

STEPHEN SOUMERAI, PROFESSOR, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: We found a marked tendency for both newspaper reports and television news reports to exaggerate benefits, to often not report anything about the risks or side effects of drugs.

KURTZ: The study also finds that the cost of new drugs, an important consideration for consumers, was reported only 30 percent of the time. And with more patients getting their medical cues from the press, the phones in many doctors' offices have been ringing off the hook.

SOUMERAI: This kind of lack of balance in reporting may result in a lot of unnecessary prescriptions and demands from patients that they get the newest drug from their physician.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Boston, Dr. Timothy Johnson, medical editor for ABC News, from New York, Gina Kolata, medical writer for the "New York Times." And still with us in Washington, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Tim Johnson, health news obviously hotter than ever. But here we have the "New England Journal" saying that the coverage tends to be overwhelmingly positive and focusing mainly on benefits, almost as if the media are kind of peddling magic potions. What's your diagnosis?

DR. TIMOTHY JOHNSON, MEDICAL EDITOR, ABC NEWS: Well, part of me says that's human nature, isn't it? We all do that in life in general. And it's not too surprising that medical journalism tends to do it.

Now to be fair, that study in the "New England Journal of Medicine" looked at only the coverage of three drugs that are widely promoted today for prevention purposes. Aspirin, Alendrenate (ph) for osteoporosis, and Pratacol (ph) for lowering cholesterol.

So it's not fair to generalize from that one study to all coverage. But I think they have a point. We do tend to report the positive news, ignore the harmful side effects, especially when time is limited.

And the one point they made in that study that I think is probably the greatest sin of all in medical journalism today is that we keep talking about relative benefit and ignore absolute benefit. For example, if a drug reduces the risk of death from two in 1,000 to one in 1,000, you can report that as the absolute numbers, as I just did. And that puts it in perspective. Or you can say it's a 100 percent benefit, which makes it sound far more dramatic than it really is.

KURTZ: OK, Gina Kolata, somebody publishes a study in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" or the "New England Journal" and on a certain day it's big news everywhere. Is that sort of reactive on the part of journalists? After all, this research goes on over a period of years. And yet these studies tend to be a snapshot, no?

GINA KOLATA, MEDICAL REPORTER, "NEW YORK TIMES": In a way, they do. But actually, what happens is once it's completed and some people who know something about the way the study was done and the way the statistics were done have a chance to look at it, and the journal decides it's good enough to publish, they all get together. And of course, the journal orchestrates the coverage should be on a certain day.

On the other hand, just because it's going on and things are coming out doesn't mean it's ready to be reported. I mean, I think you really have to have a result that's credible before you report it.

KALB: Well, Tom, we just heard some of the negative particulars about medical reporting. You're involved in a project called Excellence in Journalism. Have we reached a point where journalism can be indicted for media malpractice?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, the problem is here that we've got a lot of -- the press is creating the supply of this stuff because we've got research, market research, that tells us people are interested in health news. We've got a lot of advertisers now who want to have daily health reports.

We did a survey of 70 local television stations last year and found that 44 percent of them have daily sponsored health segments. They're sponsored by local medical institutions or organizations.

That's a lot of time to fill. And they're filling it with whatever they can.

My concern with this is, A, conflict of interest, and B, whether we're providing viewers and audiences with more information than they can absorb that's meaningful. They're being whipsawed. One week this is good to take. The next week, it's not good to take.

KURTZ: Gina Kolata, the Word Alzheimer's Conference meets here in Washington this week. And suddenly we have a "Time" magazine cover and lots of other coverage about a possible vaccine for Alzheimer's.

Is there anything -- yet inevitably there have to be more studies, more animal tests, more human tests. They're weighing the side effects. And so I'm wondering if these events lead to coverage that in your view might be premature or a bit speculative.

KOLATA: That's a great question because this is a really good example of the way the coverage can be orchestrated. What happened was a year ago there was a really interesting animal study that indicated that an experimental treatment they call a vaccine might be able to alleviate sort of an animal version of Alzheimer's Disease.

And now say what's the news today, what's happening? Well, the Alzheimer's Association put out a press release and had a session at this World Alzheimer's Conference saying that the first 25 people out of the projected 100 who were supposed to undergo safety tests, not even tests of effectiveness, just tests to see if it's safe, so far haven't had any bad side effects.

So you might say, "Well, where is the news here? We don't even know if it's safe. They haven't even completed the safety tests. We certainly don't know if it works."

KALB: But Howie, one of the points you're raising about a convention suddenly generating a lot of front page stories, that's characteristic of journalism. You have a Camp David meeting between the president and the Middle East leaders, suddenly you're flooded with stories about what the issues are in the Middle East. That goes with journalism.

KURTZ: But this gets the hope up of so many patients who are dying for a cure -- excuse the expression -- for Alzheimer's or AIDS.

KALB: Depending on how the story is written. I want to pick up a point you raised about conflict of interest. Hang on just a...

KOLATA: Can I please on the Alzheimer's for a second though?

KURTZ: Yeah, sure, go ahead, Gina. KOLATA: I think the question is if you're a patient or a family member, you might like to say, "I want all the news. I want to know everything I can about what's coming out." And the Alzheimer's Association might say the same thing.

But you also might say, "At what point is there news? Is it when 25 people have taken an experimental dose to test for safety out of 100 that are supposed to take it?" Would you publish that in a journal? I don't think a journal would take it.

Is that news? And who's going to decide? And at what point -- I mean, as you said, the continuous flow of people into studies, data coming out, when do you say you have a result?

KALB: Why don't the editors exactly and precisely answer the very questions that you've raised. It seems to me clearly on the face of it these are serious journalistic questions. And what you are raising is so basic that it's odd that these things escaped the editors.

KURTZ: Tim Johnson, why don't you jump in here.

JOHNSON: Well, but in this particular case, as Gina points out, it didn't get in the hand of the editors. It was released at a press conference. There are no editors there to monitor the press conference and say, "You can't say that."

KALB: Yeah, but you have...


KALB: ... We've all spiked stories that we've gotten on handouts because they've been propaganda and have no real substantial news. It can be true of medicine.

ROSENSTIEL: Well, it seems to me that the role of the journalist in this case and in most cases is to sift through what's important and to get to the good stuff for people. Tell them what they need to know, not add to their confusion or create false hopes. Those are journalistic sins to do either one of those.

KURTZ: OK, we've got to take a short break here. Sorry, all. In a moment, more of our medical diagnosis.



Gina Kolata, two years ago you wrote about new cancer drugs that some research -- excuse me, researchers -- say, quote, "are the most exciting treatment they have ever seen. But they tempered their enthusiasm with caution."

As you recall, after that story appeared on the front page of the "New York Times," a lot of the media did not temper their enthusiasm with caution. It was just an explosion of coverage. And I wonder what you made of that sort of chain reaction that you helped start.

KOLATA: I was really sort of shocked, especially that the media ignored the caveat, many people did I thought, and said, "Well, here's a cure," because this was like a proof of principle. It was saying in mice you can do something you couldn't do before. And I kept trying to say that.

But there's a long way to go between mice and people, which the Alzheimer's study was also about. I mean, a lot of people covered the original mouse vaccine study with Alzheimer's in a very excited way.

And it was exciting. It is exciting. But the question is now what? You have to wait quite a while.

KURTZ: Why do you think that the media -- excuse me -- dropped these caveats and tended to get caught up in the enthusiasm of progress or even a potential cure?

KOLATA: Well, of course, as Tim Johnson said, I think everybody wants to see good news. And I think when you have a new idea, a new approach, something that's very surprising, that people would say, "This is really neat. It's different than anything we've seen before. And it's a great avenue of research. Who knows if it's going to work. But it's a great avenue."

And you'd like to hear that. Everybody wants to hear that. Everybody wants something to cling to, some hope.

But I think that the thing you have to be careful about, and I think we all have to be aware of it all the time, is that an animal test can be really, really interesting. And you see it all the time. This looks promising in animals. But the next question is what's going to happen when it goes into people? And four out of five drugs that enter human study fail because they're not safe or they're too dangerous.

ROSENSTIEL: I think there's a point to be made here about expertise, too. With Gina and Tim, you have two of the most expert and technically able medical reporters in the country. But the hundreds of people doing health segments on local television news every day across the country may not have the same level of knowledge and caution.

And one of the issues here is that what appears in the "Journal of American Medical Association" may not really be ready for mass consumption on local TV news. Different audiences.

You're talking to doctors in one who understand the technical aspects of a study. You're talking to sick people who want, as you said, are desperate for a cure in another. And we're not being an adequate bridge between these two levels of audiences.

KALB: That breaches into precisely a proposition that you yourself made, Tim. And that has to do with what you call the credentialing of medical journalists, that there has to be some way, not necessarily with a medical degree from a medical school, but some way in which journalists are introduced and are familiar with the medical terms and understand the issues at stake.

You've called for credentialing. How could you do that?

JOHNSON: Well, in the article you referred to from the "New England Journal of Medicine," I said that there ought to be some way of proving that a medical journalist has at least taken some coursework or in some way educated themselves about basic bio-statistics and epidemiology. You can't interpret medical studies otherwise.

Now I say if we insist that a weather man be or weather woman be a meteorologist, why not have some kind of credential for a medical journalist? As you can imagine, that suggestion of mine went over like a lead balloon among my fellow journalists.

But I do think we've come to the point where we really have to be able to in some way say if we're going to give this person the power to interpret important, potentially life and death information, we've got to make sure that they have the knowledge and the equipment to do that.

And it's a tricky business. But if we -- as I said in that article, if we can figure out how to credential hairdressers, we should be able to figure out how to credential medical journalists.

ROSENSTIEL: Unfortunately, a lot of weather men are failed comedians.

KURTZ: Gina Kolata, we're a little short on time. But the study also noted that 60 percent of the time, the industry ties of the experts quoted in various articles or on television are not disclosed. So you have Dr. Kildeer (ph) who's on the payroll of the dairy industry saying, "Milk is good."

How much of a problem is that? Is that journalistic shortcoming if we don't know who's funding some of the people?

KOLATA: I think you have to ask. And I think that it doesn't necessarily mean that what they're saying is wrong. But I think you have to try to get independent people.

KURTZ: That will have to be the last word. Gina Kolata, Dr. Timothy Johnson in Boston, Tom Rosenstiel here, thanks very much for joining us.

Bernie's "Back Page" and your viewer e-mail when we return.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page."


KALB: The Middle East moved to Camp David these last few days. And it's produced two different sets of negotiations. In one case, the media have been shut out. In the other case, just the opposite, all the media they can get. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KALB (voice-over): This diplomatic tango was a prelude to the secret talks. "After you, Mr. Prime Minister." "No, after you, Mr. Chairman." This bit of theater in sharp contrast to the stiff Israeli-Palestinian handshake engineered by the president back in '93.

But now, once they joined the president inside, that was it. No more cameras. But their informality filtered down to the Palestinians and the Israelis on the outside. And they quickly became talking heads, joking, kibitzing, each side putting its best foot forward, negotiating with the audience you might say in the grand competition for public opinion.

Back in the Middle East, officials there don't have the habit of turning up for a friendly chat on their local TV station. In fact, back in the '80s in the days of the Intefada, the Palestinians insisted that a symbolic fence be erected to separate the two sides before the Palestinians would appear with the Israelis on a "Nightline" town meeting with Ted Koppel as umpire.

There have been a lot of changes since then. And here these last few days, the survivors of the Middle East conflict were talking as though they were old friends, including Hanan Ashrawi of that town hall meeting.

They're easy cross talk was picked up in a "New York Times" piece on the subject. Here's Dr. Ashrawi on PBS.


HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN SPOKESPERSON: I know you very well, and I have tremendous respect for you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hanan, if I may call you Hanan because we are good friends...


KALB: And on "Crossfire," this.






KALB: Hanan, Uli (ph), Avraham, the two sides now on a first- name basis, the media giving them a chance to state their case. But the real question is whether all the Ulis and Hanans and Avrahams can turn that on-camera coziness into being on a first-name basis with peace. And that is something that the media can only report, not create.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Before we go, a look at our viewer e-mail. Last week, asked whether journalists were getting swept away in the "Survivor" reality TV craze. One viewer thinks the media are guilty as charged.

He writes: "CBS has compromised the integrity of its mission by pandering to network consultants and focus groups. No surprise that integrity is further compromised by this shameless promotion of entertainment division programming."

But another viewer disagrees, writing: ""Survivor" is a show that has never been done before. And so it is newsworthy. Of course, it isn't breaking world news. But it is entertainment news. And that is still technically news."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll talk about Bill Bradley endorsing Al Gore, George W. Bush courting black votes, and Congress repealing the estate tax. Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota joins the gang for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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