This is how my local CBS station, WCCO in Minneapolis, teased and promoted a story about the surgeon who worked on Adele’s vocal cord polyp. Miracle? Really? Why do journalists feel the need to elevate stories about celebrities and their doctors to this level?
For almost six years, we have worked through our HealthNewsReview.org project to try to get journalists to report on evidence, on costs, on stuff that really matters to their health care consumer audience.
Elevating celebrity surgeons to “miracle” status is going in the opposite direction.
In an essay entitled “The 7 Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical News” years ago I wrote about “miracle” being one of the seven:
Miracle lost its luster after I talked with a man who had undergone a successful lung transplant. The man had heard others describe the procedure and his outcome as a miracle. He said, “This was no miracle. Moses didn’t come down and part my chest with his staff. A surgeon did it with a knife, and it hurt, and I had a lot of problems afterwards. I’m very grateful, but this was no miracle.” There is no need to elevate the accomplishments of medicine to a supernatural level. They are worthy of admiration for what they are: tremendous achievements by highly-trained, caring professionals, working with health care consumers who must do their part to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. This reality may be lost when we say “miracle.”
Another issue: why did WCCO offer no disclosure – as they apparently attempted to make this look like it was a locally-produced story – that there wasn’t any local reporting involved in this? WCCO pulled out some file footage of Adele and then grabbed a feed from CBS to fill news time on a Sunday night and to cross-promote network programming with a sensational tease.
But the Minneapolis station wasn’t the only one to grab the CBS feed and make it look like their own: websites of CBS stations in at least Miami, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh appeared to do the same thing.
Some more blatantly tried to make it look like their own local reporter did the story – which, of course, they didn’t.
And each one did some version of reminding viewers that the surgeon was surgeon-to-the-stars: not only Adele but singers like Steven Tyler, Roger Daltry, Lionel Ritchie, Julie Andrews and Cher.
OK, we know this goes on all the time with local stations grabbing feeds to fill time and to add some “hamburger helper” to their news to make it look beefier than it really is.
But that doesn’t make it right. Not without disclosure. They could have put “Original reporting by WBZ-TV, Boston” on the screen for 3 seconds.
WCCO, why not report on whether the surgery is available in the Twin Cities area? If so, how much does it cost? If not, how much would it cost to fly to Boston and have this done by the surgeon-to-the-stars? (My colleague William Heisel wrote this week that journalists “should stitch ‘What does it cost?’ onto their pillows so they can see it every morning when they wake up. This is the single biggest pitfall for most of the stories we review.”)
Meantime, think about the uninsured in the audience. Think about the poor schmuck in Minneapolis who’s just been downsized and so has his health insurance – what is he supposed to do with that information about the celebrity surgeon in Boston?
Pray for a miracle?