Curing Health and Medical Coverage

By Stamford, Bryant | American Journalism Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Curing Health and Medical Coverage


Stamford, Bryant, American Journalism Review


Journalists need to be more skeptical and place developments in context to avoid confusing the public.

I WAS YOUNG AND NERVOUS. THE LINE WAS MOVING, AND up ahead stood the nurse who gives the polio shots. Our third-grade teacher tried to ease anxieties by telling us the stow of Dr. Jonas Salk. As I recall, it went something like this:

Salk hated polio and wanted more than anything to rid the world of its terrible effects. Relentlessly, like Dr. Frankenstein locked in his watchtower, Salk worked, neither eating nor sleeping, slavishly researching a cure. Then, one day, near death from exhaustion, he awoke with a brilliant idea, shouted "eureka!," dashed downstairs to his lab, fired up the Bunsen burner, clanked a few test tubes, and, bingo! Out popped the vaccine that would save mankind.

This made a pretty exciting stow, and it served the purpose of taking our minds, for the moment at least, off the dreaded needle that grew larger and more menacing with each advancing step. In looking back, I doubt I would have given the teacher much attention if we were told a more accurate version of the Salk discovery--that many research teams from around the scientific world had worked years, and their work had paved the way for the ultimate breakthrough by providing tiny building blocks published in obscure scientific journals.

I held onto the fantasized version of the Salk discovery for many years and was happy in my naivete. I admire heroic efforts, and I love heroes. It wasn't until much later, when I became a graduate student, that I dared to question.

Ultimately, my career path led to a professorship at a university where I engaged in research and became a producer of knowledge. Along the way, I also became a member of the media, writing a syndicated newspaper column, contributing articles to lay and professional publications, serving on a number of magazine editorial boards, and appearing weekly on local radio and TV programs to report on developments in health and medicine. For many years I have worn two hats: as a producer of knowledge and a reporter-commentator.

In this dual role, I have come to appreciate the subtle complexities involved when combining the media, which thrive on what's hot today, with the medical research establishment, which by its very nature must be careful and meticulously calculating. Often the outcome is less than desirable, if not downright confusing.

In the earlier years of my two-hat role, I thought of myself as a uniquely qualified go-between, able to discuss a number of esoteric topics, distilling them to a commonly understood denominator without oversimplifying and distorting, acting, or so I thought, as the champion of relevance and accuracy. I also became highly critical of my media colleagues who never seemed able to get it right.

Along the way, it was inevitable that I would fall from my self-perceived lofty perch. I have, in fact, eaten carloads of humble pie, learning firsthand how easily and readily I can misinterpret issues to fit my own zealous goal of saving the world from itself. I found myself doing exactly the things I have criticized in others: I have latched onto premature, weakly tested and peripheral findings--blowing them out of proportion, slanting them to bolster my stance. And I have wrapped the likes of Jonas Salk in a cape-blue with a big red "S" on it--when it suited my purpose. I've never done these things knowingly or intentionally, and my purpose was honorable. But ignorance is no excuse, and I am guilty as charged.

I've concluded that those of us who report on this sort of stuff need to work harder and be a little more critical of ourselves and our information in an effort to get it right-or at least to get it as right as possible.

DESPITE THE PROLIFERATION OF INFORMATION AVAILable to us, especially over the past two decades, I much of our society is desperately ill-informed and confused when it comes to health issues. …

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