MDHEQ
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Writing & Communicating with the Public

 
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Jessica Nordell (JN) and Glenn Howatt (GH) joined us on May 19th 2018 to discuss engaging the media and communicating with the public.

Ms. Nordell is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book about bias.

Mr. Howatt is an editor and journalist at the Star Tribune. He has covered health care since the Clinton administration. He is a recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist in the 2015 Pulitzer competition. He also won two Loeb awards for financial journalism as well as other national and state journalism awards.

 

Below is a paraphrased recount of our panel discussion:

 

We asked our panelists to give a general overview of their assessment on the media landscape and how physicians & health care professionals fit into that

 

GH: Since I started working the newspaper has physically shrunk & with that the number of words we can use to tell stories has as well.

There is more focus in the newsroom on what is going on in people’s lives and from that lens we look to talk about the issues. That said we are interested in populations too, not just people.

Interested in getting your concern or issue covered in the local newspaper? The best way to talk about an issue with a news reporter is to first give them a call. Talk about what you are seeing and why you think it is important to cover this. It doesn’t always have to be bad! Talk about what is working as well we what isn’t. What is the action/intervention that is helping make a difference in your practice and/or patients’ lives.

You can always ask for things to be “off-the-record,” but, given the current climate around news/fake news, if your goal is to get your story told you have to be comfortable providing a source

Our phone lines are open!

 

JN: Your expertise as a physician is valuable. Readers find expert opinion interesting and those of physicians in particular.

OpEds do change minds! She cited a study that showed OpEds are actually effective at changing opinion amongst readers.

How to make readers care when there is limited space? Find your “character” Here is a NYT OpEd as an example (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/24/opinion/sunday/doctors-revolt-bernard-lown.html)

What does having a "character" do?

-          gives starting point/context to the social/culture moment

-          there is a relatedness, a relationship that they could imagine having

-          Gets attention - like tabloids! (We like reading about other people)

-          Keeps reader grounded in what’s important while allowing them to think about the bigger issues

Next, build the levers that are influencing this issue up from that character (how does it impact patient-the staff- the hospital- the healthcare system- medicine as a culture)

Then Layer out the areas of concern and importantly, talk them about solutions

Finish by coming back to the character and speaking to what happened/may happen

 

Q&A Session

Q#1 - What should the role of physicians should be in communicating with the public?

JN – on the front line, observe patterns and report back. Can see how policies impact people.

GH - on news side a doctor’s word is like gold. Carries weight and credibility. Want to get their voice in articles because physicians are working directly with people impacted by these issues. It would be nice to hear from doctors more in the newsroom. Newspapers don’t hear as often as they used to (maybe health systems clamping down on interaction with media?). Reporters don’t write about issues as much as how people are feeling to get the reader more interested in the underlying issues.

JN - doctors aren’t writing as much about their experiences. Cites Atul Gawande as an exception and great example

 

Q#2 - How as providers and researchers can we avoid taking over vulnerable populations’ stories when trying to tell them from your role(s). We don’t want to act like an expert in a situation we aren’t familiar with (living in poverty, dealing with racism/sexism, etc).

GH- when talking to reporters people are usually really open about their experience(s), often they don’t want others to go through the same thing so sharing is a way to do that

JN - be honest about your limitations and where you come from. Consider sharing the writing with the source/inspiration. Waiting for the perfect situation can be the opposite of good/doing anything however so take that into consideration as well.

Audience Member – It can also help to read broadly and find other writers that have the voice you respect and trust. Whether that’s writers who you contact to write your story or ones you emulate when writing your own

 

Q#3 - how do we train ourselves to find things to write about?

JN - trust your own enthusiasm! What are you talking to others about? What keeps you up? What’s always on your mind? Then look deeper at why. What patterns do you see?

GH - think about things that haven’t been talked about a lot or recently. Finding ways that “little” themes are related to big things. Example: he wrote about the new Farm Bill which wasn’t expressively about health but it did have provisions in it that placed work requirements on individuals who received SNAP benefits (food stamps). This was related to recent Medicaid work requirement legislation and social safety net in general

Audience Member – I have started a word document that I have open when I am in clinic. When a patient story moves me I write it down there so I can reference it later as I think about what I want to write or advocate

 

Q#4 – Many of the issues that impact medicine are inevitably political. How do you as a writer or as an organization avoid getting labelled by newsrooms as “this side or that side?” How do you as a writer try to avoid the current polarization we find ourselves surrounded by?

GH – We look at if the person/organization is a part of the debate/process? We strive for balance and look for views grounded in facts

JN – I rely heavily on evidence, I then try to engage both perspectives with seriousness & avoid straw man arguments. I lay out the facts on both sides, if they exist, and then usually conclude with where the facts have led me

 

Q#5 - Should physicians care about wearing their politics on their sleeve?

GH – Can’t answer that question for physicians, they have to answer that for themselves. As a reported I have to be apolitical. However in my experience it is rare for a physician to express an overt political opinion

JN – That is something everyone has to come to themselves

 

Q#6 - What are the best ways to get science/research stories in front of media?

GH – You need to be able to explain to a “normal” person, “what is the impact on everyday people?” Provide embargoed copies of your articles/data, talk directly (off the record) first & frequently, have patience for the process.

 

Q#7 - What is the Process at Star Trib for editorial board pieces? Commentaries/letters to the editor?

GH – There is a news side & an editorial board, they are purposefully separate, editorial board decides as a group on stances, there is a guide they provide on submitting letters and commentaries (http://www.startribune.com/a-guide-to-editorial-and-commentary/394172491/)

 

Q#8 – How to best use Twitter to engage with journalists?

GH – Follow writers, tweet links to studies that are interesting. HARO (Help A Reporter Out) sites are not effective for local reporters