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Bringing superbugs to life for the radio Date: 05/04/18


Lynn Arditi

Lynn Arditi, a health reporter with Rhode Island Public Radio recently delved into the world of antibiotic resistant bacteria with a story, "Racing to Beat Superbugs: Study Shows Promise," about promising research that could result in a new class of antibiotics. No new class of antibiotics has been introduced in thirty years, which has many public health officials worried. Deaths from antibiotic resistance bacteria are rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate about 23,000 people die a year in the U.S. from “superbugs,” a term used to refer to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Arditi, who was a long-time print reporter at the Providence Journal before moving to radio last year, adds a whole new dimension to reporting on superbugs and laboratory work by adding sound to what could otherwise be a dry story about a report. Arditi talked more about how she did the story with Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s core topic leader on infectious diseases.

Q: How did you come to report on this story?

A: A former newspaper colleague of mine [at the Providence Journal] who is now a public relations person for Lifespan, the largest hospital system in Rhode Island pitched it to me. Usually I am loath to do anything that is pitched to me from a hospital, but we were having coffee and he pitched me an interesting angle. Antibiotics are drugs that that Big PhRMA isn’t interested in investing in and so this study about a new class of antibiotics seemed to have more of a social purpose to me. It wasn’t just, here’s the most recent study about a potential new drug.

Q: What were among your biggest challenges in reporting this story?

A: One was, how do I approach this story? When I was in print, I would just read the embargoed copy of the study, look up the data and sample size in the study, figure out who funded it, the things that we are taught to do by the AHCJ. But this was a radio story and so I had to think through, how do a make a story about a study, an interesting radio story? My sense was that I should do what we call in radio a “2 way,” which is an interview with the top researcher of the study by me. Then you build scenes and characters around that. Since much of the “scene” was at a lab, I knew I wanted to capture the sounds of the lab to make it a “character” in the story. That was logistically challenging. I had to carry two mikes (microphones) with me, as I followed a lab assistant around, while he was taking out petri dishes and items out of the freezer. One of the mikes I carried is called a “shotgun” mike, which is so sensitive that it can pick up sounds of feet moving on the floor, With that mike, (which is called a shotgun because we grip it like it is a gun) I could pick up all kinds of sounds. Then I had to go back to my office and edit it in a way that was interesting.

Q: How long did it take you to produce this piece?

A: I got a summary of the study on an embargoed basis and probably did all my interviews, with the researcher and at the lab on a Thursday afternoon. I thought I would have all Friday to work on it, but news got in the way, so I was still working on it on Monday because I had to add photos to the radio piece in addition to providing text for the website. Tuesday the embargo was lifted, but I wasn’t done so I did a quick short straight news story that day, i.e. this study was published indicating a new possible source for a new class of antibiotics. I finished the piece Tuesday night around 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. and it ran the next day. There was a lot of legwork involved.

Q: What sources did you turn to as you reported on the study?

A: I did a lot of Googling. I read articles from JAMA, PubMed, the WHO, Pew (Charitable Trusts Antibiotic Resistance Project), Stat and reports from the CDC. There were a lot of articles and links to other sources on the web, so I was able to get a lot of background on the issue.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned working on this story?

 It seems really worrisome that we are so far behind on antibiotics and that these new lines of antibiotics take so long to get to market. Then, by the time they get into the market, the bacteria quickly become resistant to them. The actual problem is that is seems like bacteria are moving at a faster pace than we are able to move. It’s really problematic that the financial motives that (drive) our pharmaceutical industry are working against us and [dampening corporate interest in investing in new antibiotics].

Q: What advice would you have for a print reporter interested in switching to radio, or interested in learning more about how to be a radio reporter in addition to a print reporting?

A: In addition to learning new technology, you have to think, report and write in a different way. You have to think about the sound part of the story, which you don’t really have to do as a print reporter. For example, in radio, you flip the sequence of resource references. You start sentences with, “so and so said, x” rather than “x, according to the so and so organization.” And the sentences need to be short. I have to fight my tendency to want to pack in as much information as I can into each sentence. What really helped me, and I recommend this to anyone interested in understand how to report for radio, is a webinar produced by NPR. You can find it here: The journey from print to radio storytelling.

Q: What are you thinking about doing to follow up on this story?

A: I want to do more stories on antibiotic resistance, particularly on the rise of C. Diff (Clostridium difficile infection). Rhode Island has among the highest c. Diff rates in New England and I want to know why that is and how the state is handling that.

Lynn Arditi is a health reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio. A native of New York City, she previously worked at The Providence Journal, R.I. ; The Center for Investigative Reporting in Washington, D.C. and at the (now defunct) Holyoke-Transcript Telegram. She can be reached at Lynn@ripr.org.