Headlining Science

Postcard from Needham, Mass.

NEEDHAM, Mass.—Whooping cough is on the rise in the U.S., Statins are the new wonder-drugs and smoking is still bad for you. This summer, I’ve been granted a temporary license as a medical know-it-all, or so I tell myself. Really, I’m just an intern.

The ABC News Medical Unit in Needham, Mass. consults on health stories for all of the network’s shows. It contains the largest database of medical and healthcare experts in the country, I’m told—a marketplace of ideas available in convenient sound bites at the drop of an email.

As an intern in the small office, I write for abcnews.com, stay on top of worldwide science coverage, critically analyze research investigations and whittle down medical studies for producers’ scrutiny into blurbs capped with such witty headlines as “Alternatives Rock” for a report on homeopathic medicine and “Egg Timer” for a new method to measure a woman’s biological clock.

Why is medical journalism so attractive to me? I’m concentrating in the sciences and I’ve been doing the journalism thing—perhaps putting them together synergistically provides a convenient rationalization for my choices.

I always like to tell people that I love the challenge of making science accessible to the public, of bridging the gap between science and the rest of the world. It sounds very grand and noble, and does a decent job covering for my lack of definitive goals when talking to advisors and relatives. But what does it really mean? With my fancy Harvard biochemistry education, I often feel a nagging discomfort at the prospect of “dumbing things down.” Neurons become brain cells, atherosclerosis turns into heart disease and at the end of it all, I wonder just how much has been lost in translation.

What is it that I’m translating, anyway? Sometimes it seems like all the news covers these days is either erectile dysfunction or obesity. No, wait, sometimes it’s erectile dysfunction and obesity. This provides us some ground for witty headlines, in any case. A link between exercise-associated weight loss and increased sexual performance leads to: Gotta get up to get down. Or, if you prefer, gotta get down to get up.

Clever advertising efforts on the part of drug companies magnify my sense of the absurd. The press package sent to us by Levitra—the new Viagra-like pill that lasts for hours—contains folded pens that become erect at the press of a button, and a stopwatch. Awesome.

The carb-obsessed nation, formerly known as the fat-obsessed nation, is as hungry as ever for new ways to fight the growing obesity problem—no, wait, epidemic. It’s gotten to the point that we’re almost out of puns and clever alliterations involving food and fat. My attempts to tie in the Garfield movie with a piece on pet obesity weren’t met too favorably by my editors, however. I suppose that’s a good thing.

Over lunch with a producer in the bureau, I bring up my pet peeves with medical journalism. Don’t you want to change things? asks my still idealistic self. Don’t you want to give Americans the news that has global significance? Malaria, cholera, other diseases that kill millions in the developing world each year? A few weeks back, a brief in the medical memo showcased a doctor making exactly this argument, and fittingly enough, it was axed in favor of yet another story about obesity.

Besides all the obesity and ED, I’m getting better at figuring out what makes medical news. You take a commonly used substance—say aspirin, or red wine or caffeine, add in a commonly feared condition—breast cancer, heart disease and asthma work—and link the two together in some way.

Certainly, most of the new studies to this effect are medically valuable. But I wonder how much the American public can take these things into account before getting entirely confused by the mixed messages.

I suppose that’s where we come in. As I come to realize, we’re not just dumbing down the science. We’re integrating diverse perspectives into a faithful representation of the bigger picture. According to a 1997 National Health Council report, 76 percent of Americans take health advice from the media, and TV news is the primary source for this information. And the most vulnerable Americans—those who stand to gain the most from accurate coverage—are the ones most likely to watch or read what we produce.

Last week, a study came out showing the negative effects of a mother’s worrying on the mental health of her unborn child. The med unit decided to downplay it, because it would just give the worrying mother something else to worry about. So maybe it is important, after all, to have educated people up in the broadcast journalism ranks, making those decisions responsibly.

I’m told that at “Good Morning America” production meetings, story pitches involve effusive adjectives and charming anecdotal tidbits. At our meetings, we sell the story by the sample size of the study or the number of people who have the disease. We may not get the freedom of poetic license, but the benefit of scientific license—the powerful legitimizing force of objectivity—is pretty sizeable. We may have to give America what it wants, but at least we can make sure it’s done responsibly, and with a healthy dose of wordplay.

Ishani Ganguli ’05, a biochemistry concentrator in Mather House, is staff director of The Crimson and director of Crimson in the Community. She aspires to be the Ron Burgundy of medical journalism someday. Stay classy, America.