Tip Sheets

Tips for print, online journalists to embrace broadcast opportunities

As our media world changes, journalists who have traditionally worked for print outlets are finding themselves with the opportunity to appear on television or the radio to help explain complex health issues to a different audience.

Bruce Japsen, a longtime Chicago Tribune reporter who now contributes to The New York Times, has some tips to help his fellow ink-stained journalists best convey their information and even embrace appearing on other outlets.

By Bruce Japsen

Bruce Japsen
Bruce Japsen

The complexities of health care are difficult enough to explain in less than 1,000 words to a print audience of consumers desperate for information about their Medicare drug plans or COBRA benefits should they lose a job.

But all of this often can be explained in nuggets of information that are short and sweet enough to get your message across but not so simple that you are insulting an audience that includes health professionals, doctors or perhaps an insurance broker looking for the latest on the health care law.

Writers and health communicators need to remind people what they are talking about. Medicare to a health reporter is what ERA is to a baseball writer. Since ERA can mean either Equal Rights Amendment or earned run average, you want to be more explanatory than ESPN’s broadcasters.

Tell people that Medicare is “the federal health insurance program for the elderly” and COBRA is “the 18-month expensive grace period for health coverage after one loses a job.” If you were to walk into Times Square and ask 10 people if they knew the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, fewer than half would know the difference – if they even know what either is. Thus, explain the programs with a quick additional three words: “elderly health plan” or “insurance for poor.”

 And what about the most popular cholesterol drug in history? Does it raise high-density lipoprotein and should we just say “HDL,” or the “good cholesterol,” or let our readers guess and tell them it lowers LDL, not using the scientific name, and call it “bad cholesterol?”

No matter, it is better to explain it to the Average Joe and get it right, rather than have them not understand information about a drug that potentially could mean life, death, or at the very least, the opportunity to ask their doctor a smart question.

Here are more suggestions when taking print or web copy from a story to a radio or TV interview:

Los Angeles Times reporter Noam Levey appeared on camera for an episode of AHCJ's
Los Angeles Times reporter Noam Levey appeared on camera for an episode of AHCJ's "Talking Health" webcast.

  1. Keep it simple. In print, you might say, “Lipitor, a pill that lowers LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, a known factor in triggering a heart attack.” On broadcast or radio, you could merely say, “Lipitor, which treats cholesterol and can prevent heart attacks.” The broadcast sentence has already been reduced to eight words, or half the print sentence. A good refresher on writing tighter is a great book called: “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing” by Rene Cappon.

  2. Where’s the fire? Think of your story as this lengthy yarn you love but when you get home from work you have one minute to tell your husband or wife about it before he or she asks if you could read your child a bed-time story or take out the garbage. You’re asked: “What did you write about today?” You must be able to tell what you are writing about in a minute or less or at least encapsulate key parts of your story in one-minute or even 30-second bites. A local TV broadcast is not going to use much of what you say and, even if you get on Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, do you think he’s going to give you much of a say?

  3. Get RID of the acronyms. A veteran Chicago Tribune copy desk chief cleaned many acronyms from my copy unless it was NFL, NCAA or FBI, to name a few. Acronyms are industry-speak and don’t mean much outside of the scientific conference or health insurance seminar you are attending. AHA, as just one example, means at least two things.  American Heart Association, American Hospital Association. And the AMA means a lot to a health care audience but not much to the advertising world that sees it as the American Marketing Association of Don Draper and Leo Burnett.

  4. Make a message box. If you're not used to TV, take a square or rhombus and make four points, placing a couple words on the side of each box and a fifth word in the middle. Should you get stuck while talking about low-priced drugs, etc., you could look at key words written on your box, which could be on a small piece of paper, your hand or on the back of a matchbook, if you’re really old school.

  5. Don’t get caught up in demagoguery, politics and policy. People want to know a few things about health care. What it costs? What it treats? Whether it is a cure or not? When will it benefit them? They don’t understand ACOs, ACAs and long-winded things you couldn’t get your bartender to comprehend even after a few pours.

  6. Be willing, be available, don’t be an anti-talking head curmudgeon. If you want to be an expert on health care outside of your blog or newspaper column, you must move from your circle to the mainstream by offering and saying yes when the general media calls. Don’t be a health journalism snob. Let’s face it, when Larry King – before he retired – had celebrities on talking about their thoughts on Hurricane Katrina from Beverly Hills or about the debt ceiling, you had to know their publicists were 10th on the list but the first to say yes.

What health journalists do to inform and relay information about this massive segment of the economy is important, but when these stories can be told to one audience, and then another, and then perhaps even another, it only leads to more health literacy and, potentially, lives lived longer and lives saved.

Bruce Japsen is a contributor to The New York Times and the Times' Prescriptions news blog. He was a health care reporter at the Chicago Tribune for 13 years and a print journalist for nearly 30 years, is a regular television analyst for PBS’ affiliate WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, WGN-TV, CBS’ WBBM radio and XM Radio’s ReachMD. He teachers health care writing at Loyola University Chicago and has taught in the University of Chicago’s Graham School of General Studies medical editing and publishing certificate program. He can be reached at brucejapsen@gmail.com.