Was NBC Today Show capitalizing on LA TV reporter’s stumbling live shot?

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The story of Los Angeles TV reporter Serene Branson’s stumbling and slurred speech during her coverage of the Grammy Awards Sunday night lit up YouTube and Twitter on Monday.

But the NBC Today show this morning ran the video over and over in a more-than-five-minute package that included speculation from two doctors who had not evaluated Ms. Branson in person, and criticism of the paramedics on the scene.

Is this sound journalism?

Granted, Ms. Branson is a public figure whose performance was captured on video. Does that mean she abdicates any right to privacy about what did or did not happen to her?

Is such speculation vital for public discussion? Worthy of 5 minutes-plus of network television airtime?

Or is this a matter of capitalizing on a person’s misfortune because you know the story is drawing lots of eyeballs?

I have mixed emotions about what NBC did. But as I sort through the mixed feelings, I still end up feeling they crossed a line.

I welcome your comments.

[The NBCToday Show video no longer available. But here is some video footage from the Grammys that night]

UPDATE ON FEBRUARY 17: This just in – and not that this is the end of the story – but it raises even more questions about the value and propriety of all of the speculation from people who hadn’t even examined the woman directly. The doctors who now HAVE examined her diagnose it as a “complex migraine.”


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Comments (18)

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Ken Leebow

February 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I happened to have seen it.
One rule that I have: If they bring on an “expert” to analyze the situation, I ignore it. Typically, they have no first-hand knowledge of the situation. Thus, other than getting some TV face-time, it’s meaningless information.

Joe Rojas-Burke

February 15, 2011 at 1:26 pm

The incident recall’s the Daily Show’s use of an on-air “vice-presidential facial-shooting expert.” This kind of uninformed analysis isn’t helpful. And in this case, what good is served for even making the attempt to find “experts” who think they can divine the cause of one individual’s suspected health problem?

Melissa Call

February 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm

You completely misrepresent the Today Show’s intent with airing this piece. This is important information and the fact that the event was captured on video gives an opportunity to enlighten people in a very positive way. This needs to be shown and talked about to encourage people to not minimize the importance of getting something like this checked out. The paramedics probably got a signed refusal of service, (“Against Medical Advice”) and if not, they were remiss in not encouraging transport to a medical facility. This is a prime opportunity for Serene Branson to share important information about how the brain responds to various types of insult and what people need to know and do. I wish her well and hope that this has no long-term effect for her.

Gary Schwitzer

February 15, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Thanks for your note.
But what, precisely, did I misrepresent?
I said the segment ran more than 5 minutes and that they ran the video over and over. Facts.
Then I asked a serious of questions.
Then I welcomed comments.
How is that misrepresentation?
And how do you know the Today Show’s “intent”? If you work for them, you should have disclosed that.
However, you speculated about what the paramedics “probably” did, or how they were remiss if they did not do what you thought they “probably” did.
Who misrepresented what?

Billy Rubin

February 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm

I just spent 45 minutes trying to craft a response, which was rejected for reasons unclear to me and lost to cyberquicksand, so this second attempt is going to be far less eloquent.
Bottom line: the first half of the story is worthy of skewering, and illustrates most of the qualities that make TV network news so worthless.
The second half (the conversation between the NBC anchor and Dr. Nancy Snyderman), however, seemed to me to be responsible, reasonably thorough, and useful from a public awareness standpoint. She noted that smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and recreational drugs are all risk factors for this kind of a presentation, and if that makes some people reconsider smoking, then she did well.
I made a long point about armchair speculation, which in the interests of time I’ll have to shorthand: “diagnosing” Terry Schiavo from watching a video is deeply irresponsible for any doctor to engage in, but this snippet of video provided a huge amount of clinical information. It’s much more useful information than I usually can obtain with a stethoscope and vial of blood three hours after a TIA patient comes into the hospital for evaluation. There’s certainly enough information there to know that she absolutely should not have gone home, and I’m finding it hard to come up with excuses for the paramedics. My guess is about 99 percent of internists and neurologists would agree with me on this point.
I agree with nearly everything Dr. Snyderman said. I might have added that a TIA is unusual for a woman of this reporter’s age, which means you have to stay open to other possibilities, such as Multiple Sclerosis, or a complicaton of HIV, among many other things. Snyderman also dismissed that this could be due to illicit drugs just by watching the video, which I think she’d take back if she had a do-over (any competent doc would order a drug screen in this situation regardless of how high or low their suspicions).
If they had only run the clip once and gone straight to the conversation with Dr. Snyderman, I’d have given them an A-minus for journalistic relevance and public health utility. Though I certainly agree with your points re: exploitation, questionable in terms of privacy, etc. Curious to hear any further thoughts you all may have.

Billy Rubin

February 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm

@ Melissa–
Re: your point about the paramedics and that she may have refused further help and signed an “AMA” document, it’s a point that I hadn’t considered, but I’m skeptical. In my experience, people who sign out AMA usually come in the form of drug addicts or people with a psychiatric illness. It is certainly possible that Ms. Branson may belong to one or both of those groups, but I think it pretty unlikely.
Snyderman’s point, with which I agree, is that anyone who exhibits behavior like this must be brought to the ER immediately.

Gregory D. Pawelski

February 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm

There seemed to be enough information on the video snippet to know she should have gone to the hospital with the paramedics. A family friend had this very same occurrence in front of her husband and son, who is a doctor. It warranted an immediate visit to the ER. Anything less than this is a foolish undertaking.
I agree with Rubin in that the second half with Snyderman, it seemed to be responsible and useful from a public awareness standpoint. Any doctor should have enough expertise to make a critical judgement of this kind of situation, no matter what their specialty is.
I agree with Gary that the first half running of the video over and over that included a lot of speculation really wasn’t vital for public discussion. I do question the network’s capitalization on a person’s misfortune because of its draw. I do believe Gary’s “airing” this piece is noteworthy.

thomy tonia

February 16, 2011 at 10:22 am

as i live outside the US this is the first time i hear about this story.
very interesting and i have mixed feelings about it too. i certainly do not agree with playing the video over and over again, as well as with reading the comments made on youtube. what is the point of that?!
on the other hand i guess it never hurts to raise public awareness for medical issues and to bring experts to inform the public about health matters. which could be done, of course, in a special show and not necessarily be connected to a specific person…but something tells me that this said show would be less popular…
thanks for the read!

mikey howells

February 18, 2011 at 6:36 am

it’s just cheap, easy, space filling coverage. 24 hour news has a lot to answer for…