Tag Archives: media coverage

Doctor: News coverage of face transplants has helped donors’ families to consent

This is a guest post from AHCJ member Chelsea Conaboy that first appeared in “White Coat Notes” at Boston.com.

By Chelsea Conaboy

Dr. Bohdan Pomahac and others at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston grappled with lots of variables as they prepared to perform some of the first-ever face transplants. One they had little control over: Would the families of potential donors support the idea?

Overwhelmingly, families have been willing to have their loved ones’ face donated for transplant, Pomahac said Wednesday night, speaking at the inaugural event of the Boston chapter of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Pomahac credited the media in part for the response, saying journalists’ eagerness to tell the stories of patients and what the transplant has meant for them has affected public opinion.

“People have really embraced it as something important,” he said.

Pomahac and a team of plastic and transplant surgeons at the hospital performed the first full face transplant in the United States in March 2011, about two years after doing a partial transplant on James Maki. Two other full transplants have been completed since.

Pomahac said he was “scared” of the media attention early on, having heard stories of tabloid reporters and photographers trying to sneak into hospitals in Europe where the earliest procedures were done.

Body guards were posted at the doors of patient rooms, and only those surgeons and support staff on a list were allowed near the operating room, he said. But the hospital staff also worked in advance of the surgeries to create a media plan that allowed for the stories to be told, something all four patients wanted. Each posed different challenges.

During Maki’s procedure, ABC was filming Boston Med at the hospital, so Pomahac was fitted with a microphone through parts of the preparation, a stressful period. At points, he said, he “just couldn’t stand it,”

“It added another level of intensity in this very, very tight period of time,” he said.

When Dallas Wiens was in surgery for the first full transplant in the United States, a crew from a British tabloid descended on the hospital with a document alleging it had exclusive rights to his story, he said. Wiens, who is blind, thought he had signed a form allowing the newspaper to take his photo, said Brigham spokeswoman Erin McDonough, who also attended the Wednesday event at Boston University, and the hospital worked with Wiens’ attorney to call off the crew.

Charla Nash, who had had a lot of media coverage prior to her surgery, came with an agent and attorneys who worked with the hospital communications staff.

Pomahac said he became a bit of a star in the Czech Republic, with most media outlets profiling him. He said journalists there have allowed him to read their stories for fact-checking before publishing.

“That’s something I would love to see here, actually,” he said. “I hear its not going to happen.”

Pomahac compared face transplants to the first kidney transplant, performed at the Brigham in 1954, between identical twins.

People then said, “So what?” What would the procedure mean for patients without a twin?

“It seemed like this bizarre, rare operation that, okay, we’re able to do it, but it’s unlikely to lead anywhere,” he said.

For many years, it didn’t. The development of immunosuppression drugs changed that. Similarly, if the side effects of those drugs used in face transplants can be controlled, and if insurers agree to cover the costly procedure, full or partial face transplants will become more widely used, he said.

One other limiting factor, he said, is the surgeons. Face transplants are long — Mitch Hunter’s surgery, the shortest at the Brigham, ran more than 14 hours, he said. Surgeons will become more efficient as the procedure becomes more common and they develop a better workflow, Pomahac said.

Now, he added, “everyone gets tired at the same time. Everyone works slower. But no one wants to leave” the operating room.

Lieberman: Media bought into heart docs’ fight

Using one-sided sentences published by newspapers nationwide as evidence, AHCJ Immediate Past President Trudy Lieberman takes her media peers to task on CJR.com for blindly advancing the agenda of the American College of Cardiology in their push against Medicare reimbursement cuts.

The ACC aggressively fought what Lieberman describes as “a new Medicare rule, which took effect January 1, that cut projected total revenues for cardiologists by 13 percent on average over four years while increasing the revenue of internists, family doctors, and general practitioners.” Lieberman writes that the rule change will effectively put more money toward much-needed primary care specializations and that it was widely mischaracterized in the press, thanks to ACC’s machinations. Lieberman:

… for the most part (news articles) passed along the cardiologists’ complaints, threats, and warnings without any hint that there was another side to the story. Between the slanted newspaper articles and audio news releases from the ACC, millions of Americans learned that the incomes of heart doctors, which can be upwards of $400,000, could take a hit.

Former CNN producer on H1N1 coverage: Retaining audience through fear-mongering

Peter Dykstra, a former executive producer of CNN’s science, tech and weather unit, offers his take on media coverage of the H1N1 virus in a column for Mother Nature News.

Dykstra writes, “The now-waning uproar over the swine flu is a textbook example of a serious story, magnified beyond reason in order to retain an audience by frightening it.” He goes on to say that local television news directors were thankful the flu threat landed just in time for sweeps month.

He points to past events in which he says the media has overreacted, including the case of Andrew Speaker, the man who had tuberculosis and was banned from flying into the United States.

The media’s overreaction and “phony hype” makes it easier for skeptics to ignore peer-reviewed science, according to the column. Dykstra, who has written about the threat of shark attacks for CNN, suspects we have “a better chance of being bitten on the butt by the consequences of bad journalism than by a shark.”

Most say outbreak coverage has been appropriate

Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher quotes three AHCJ board members about coverage of the swine flu outbreak, all of whom agree that reporters and editors need to take a measured approach. AHCJ president Trudy Lieberman says journalists should be careful not to overplay the danger but also must not minimize it.

AHCJ resourcesAHCJ resources for covering swine flu, pandemics and preparedness

“The more history and context you can get, the better. You need to give the how-to advice.”

Ivan Oransky, an AHCJ board member and managing editor for online at Scientific American, says journalists have learned lessons from past scares, such as anthrax and SARS.

Media critic Howard Kurtz writes about swine flu coverage in The Washington Post, saying that “the sheer volume of media attention suggested a full-blown crisis.” Kurtz talks to people from MSNBC and CNN, as well as journalism educators who all seem to back up Kurtz’ assertion.

He does report that flu stories are no longer the exclusive domain of traditional news organizations:

These days, flu stories spread through more than just traditional outlets. Nielsen Online reports that Internet postings about swine flu are nearly 10 times as great as for the salmonella and peanut butter scare last winter, and the subject of nearly 2 percent of Twitter messages.

Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, says he has been “favorably impressed” by most of the coverage, although he says he hasn’t watched television coverage.

The Knight Science Journalism tracker analyzes coverage of the swine flu outbreak so far, finding that “advice in fact sheet and question-answer formats are common” but that there is little coverage of the science. The Tracker does acknowledge that’s to be expected at this early stage but that soon there will be new science to report on.

Kit Eaton of Fast Company reports on the use of Twitter to spread information about the swine flu outbreak. Eaton writes that Twitter seems to be finding use as a live news channel as people use it to report things like passengers at the Atlanta airport using face masks.

However, Eaton points to another issue: “there’s no moderation on Twitter, obviously, so there’s as much a potential for the spread of misinformation as there is for vital or interesting news.”

CNN’s John D. Sutter reports that some people say Twitter has become a “hotbed of unnecessary hype and misinformation about the outbreak.”

Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute and a blogger on ForeignPolicy.com, says “there’s incentive for Twitter users to post whatever is on their mind because it helps them grow their online audiences.”

But in an emergency, that tendency means people write about their own fears of symptoms and widespread deaths, which can create an uninformed hysteria, he said.

Al Tompkins, of Poynter Institute, says information about the outbreak needs to be put in context by journalists. Tompkins also says that — so far — television coverage has been responsible.


AHCJ board member and independent journalist Andrew Holtz was interviewed on KCBS radio in San Francisco about media coverage of the outbreak.