‘Our Top Story Tonight: I Get Surgery’

A flood of first-person medical stories are resonating with local TV viewers. But stations now face a higher ethical bar.
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When Lu Ann Cahnlearned in 1991 that she had breast cancer, the WCAU Philadelphia news anchor decided she had to share her personal battle with viewers. “My news director at the time was like, ‘No way, you can’t do that,’” recalls Cahn. “He said, ‘If you do this, you’ll always be the reporter who had breast cancer.’ I was like, ‘I hope I get to see that day.’ I was not sure I would survive.”

Cahn persisted and ended up winning an Emmy for her in-depth report. “I thought I was going down and I wasn’t going down quietly. I was going to tell every woman I knew, ‘I had a lump and it was ignored, and if it can happen to me, it could happen to you,’” said Cahn. “I know it crosses every line of journalism I was taught in school—that you’re not the story—but I felt like if it’s part of the greater good, so be it. You’re a storyteller. You have a megaphone.”

A quarter-century after Cahn’s trailblazing move, on-air talent’s exploration of intimate, personal medical matters has become the norm in broadcast journalism. But for local stations, which are engaged in an existential fight for relevance, subjective health stories represent the ultimate tightrope walk.

Executed well, the segments can create a potent blend of traditional broadcast, social media and digital reach, delivering large and responsive audiences and effecting positive change. And yet, first-person medical enterprise by definition tempts a kind of oversharing that goes way beyond selfie sticks and TMI tweets. As the access to medical stories expands dramatically as society itself opens up online, stations face serious ethical considerations. With newspapers in secular decline, stations bear an increased burden of public information and accountability. They now effectively wield hundreds of megaphones where Cahn once saw just her own.

“You name the ailment or disease, we’ve had someone who’s shared their journey with viewers,” said Jessica Bellucci, VP of communications for Tribune Broadcasting, which owns 42 local television stations reaching more than 50 million households.

She rattled off several, including: Big Budah, a morning feature reporter at Fox affiliate KSTU Salt Lake City, who has been chronicling his weight loss on the air and online since 2014; Roche Madden, a reporter with Fox affiliate KTVI St. Louis, who has done several stories on his rectal cancer surgery and recovery; and Tracy Sears, an anchor with CBS affiliate WTVR in Richmond, Va. She won a local Emmy in 2014 for a report on her bout with invasive cervical cancer.

The forces shaping the local TV business are accelerating the drive to explore health stories from the patient’s POV. But the lines have been blurring for a generation.

In 1989—13 years before he went public with his gastric bypass surgery—Al Roker, then a local weatherman at WNBC in New York, did a special series on dieting and discussed his personal weight struggles. A signal moment came a few years later, in 2000, when Roker’s NBC Today colleague Katie Couric launched a crusade for cancer screening. Motivated by her husband’s death from colon cancer, Couric broadcast her own colonoscopy live. Nearly 6.7 million viewers tuned in to see close-ups of Couric’s colon that morning and colonoscopy rates jumped by 20% in the months following—a phenomenon that medical researchers termed the “Katie Couric Effect.”

And when Robin Roberts famously dealt with breast cancer and bone marrow disease, her Good Morning America audience was empathetic and supportive of whatever coverage aired on the show.

Today, the bias against first-person storytelling has largely faded away. News personalities around the country, when they aren’t Instagramming their way through the day, have chronicled their own health battles with everything from cancer to bipolar disorder to multiple sclerosis to infertility.

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and VP at the Poynter Institute, said the long-standing prohibition on first-person storytelling existed in part because the media was a select group. The so-called “fourth estate,” it was believed, had the primary responsibility of holding others accountable instead of looking at its own reflection in the mirror. “There was this feeling that we shouldn’t abuse that and journalists should look elsewhere for stories—but since the internet became available to everybody, what we found is first-person medical stories, when done well, can be very compelling,” she said.

‘I’m Just Like You’

As Couric discovered, the megaphone can be that much more powerful on a national scale.

Former CNN anchor Zain Verjee said that in all her years of reporting, she never got more of a response than she did in 2014 when she decided to reveal her life-long battle with psoriasis, a painful and disfiguring autoimmune disease that affects the skin. In an article on CNN.com, Verjee described in excruciating detail the painful sores and “fish-like” scales that have “ravaged” her body since she was eight years old, the shame she felt about her appearance and the great lengths she went to hiding it.

Two million readers clicked on her story, making it one of the highest read stories ever posted on CNN.com and surpassing Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s popular personal story about how he’d changed his mind and favors the legalization of marijuana. Verjee said the feedback she received not only from the public, but also from network top brass, including CNN president Jeff Zucker, was “mind-blowing” and remains “one of my proudest moments at CNN.”

Several local TV reporters described their health confessionals as an opportunity to “humanize” themselves and connect with their audience.

“It’s a teachable moment, but also a moment of ‘I’m just like you.’ Sometimes people look at what I do for a living and think everything is perfect in my life,” said Alicia Vitarelli, an anchor with ABC O&O WPVI in Philadelphia. Vitarelli in November 2013 reported on-air about her struggle with the uterine disorder endometriosis and her difficult effort to become pregnant. Revealing her infertility problems, Vitarelli said, struck a chord with viewers. Some sent in hand-knitted baby blankets and many shared their own struggles with infertility with her via e-mail and through Facebook.

The concept of full disclosure is being redefined in a Snapchat-Periscope world where little appears to be out of bounds.

When Wendy Ryan, an anchor on E.W. Scripps-owned ABC affiliate WFTS in Tampa, developed a nasty eye infection last spring, her 25,000 Facebook followers were the first ones to know about it. Over the course of several days, the Tampa anchor posted stunning images of herself on Facebook as her eye swelled shut. She was admitted to the hospital with a raging staph infection, which later turned out to be MRSA. An Action News crew team was dispatched to her hospital bedside, where a makeup-less Ryan went on camera to talk about how close she came to losing her eye.

Her followers were riveted. Her posts from the hospital during her eye infection regularly drew more than 1,000 “likes,” and more than 240 viewers took part in a live Facebook chat with Ryan about her MRSA experience when she returned to work.

Reflecting on the sequence of events in an interview with B&C, she said candor is now just part and parcel with an on-air role. “The line between private life and public life is very, very slim,” she said. “The more I share about my private life, it seems the more people relate to me. I just don’t think you can keep things private, including, literally, a MRSA infection that almost took my eye.”

Ryan’s news director, Matt Brown, agrees. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve removed the one-way mirror that television was, where viewers only saw us in controlled circumstances,” he said. “Social media has made it a two-way conversation. There is much more of an expectation that not only will our anchors share their weekend activities, the birth of a child, their adoption of a dog, but they’re also going to share the downtimes, the times when things aren’t as good.”

There are also times when the first-person health narrative is unavoidable. Physical changes in an anchor’s appearance will often prompt questions and concerns from viewers that warrant an explanation. Dave Aizer, an on-air host on WSFL Miami, shared his melanoma diagnosis with viewers after months of questions about why he had facial hair and why his face appeared swollen. Raleigh-Durham viewers were similarly concerned in changes they noticed in longtime anchor Larry Stogner’s speech patterns. The local ABC anchorman announced in March 2015 that he had been diagnosed with ALS and would be retiring.

‘Do We Shut It Down?’

It can be difficult to turn back once you go down the rabbit hole of personal health disclosure, however. Stacey Skrysak, an anchor at Sinclair’s ABC affiliate WICS Decatur-Springfield, Ill., said she realized just that while lying in an ICU hospital bed in 2013. Skrysak had been very public about her prior struggles with infertility and pregnancy with triplets, but not long after sharing her story on the airwaves, she was hospitalized with a life-threating E. coli infection. She ended up delivering her one-pound babies 17 weeks early. Her first-born, Abigail, died two hours after birth. Parker, her son, died 55 days later.

The story drew widespread attention, including coverage in People magazine. Skrysak recalls lying in the ICU, consumed with grief and fighting for her life and wondering whether it had been a good idea to have been so public about her pregnancy. Having once readily shared every detail about her pregnancy, she suddenly wasn’t certain about how to relay the anguished ending of the story. “I remember telling my husband, ‘What do we do? Do we announce it? Do we shut it down? Do we keep going?’”

Ultimately, she decided to continue sharing her story through her blog and, in 2015, went back on the airwaves with a personal report on the difficult topic of child loss. “For me, it has helped tremendously and opened the door to helping others,” said Skrysak. “It gave me new purpose in life.”

Andrew Holtz, a former CNN medical correspondent, said personalizing health stories is an inherently risky practice. Although stories don’t typically include health care recommendations, he notes, they can have a measurable effect on viewers who, in turn, make medical decisions based on what they see on TV.

“When a journalist starts saying ‘I went for this treatment’ or ‘I got this treatment’ they are in a way recommending their personal decisions to a whole population of viewers for whom that may not be good advice” he said. “This is treading into some really dangerous waters.”

Even an initiative like Katie Couric’s was fraught, he believes, because it encouraged individuals to get colonoscopies when, in fact, there are other ways to screen for colon cancer, including a non-invasive home test. “Personal stories are compelling, but as a journalist you need to be as objective as possible, looking at the evidence and making sure you are faithful to that evidence,” Holtz said. “And if you use your own personal story, I don’t think that’s possible.”

Avoiding the Exploitation Trap

McBride and fellow Poynter faculty member Al Tompkins both see inherent value in first-person health narratives. But they stress that stations and reporters need to be mindful in how they approach them. For instance, while privacy concerns can make it difficult for reporters to get access to patients, journalists shouldn’t overlook important nuances and perspectives and just default to telling their own stories. McBride points out that one casualty of such approaches is diversity.

“Let’s say you’re a white guy and had a heart attack and did a story on your heart attack,” McBride posits. “You have an obligation to ask: ‘How is my story not representative of other stories and what might other people who don’t look like me need to know?’”

That’s what Alaska news anchor Ariane Aramburo did when deciding to go public with her personal battle with post-partum depression. While Aramburo, who works for NBC affiliate KTUU in Anchorage, opened her “More Than Baby Blues” series with her own story, it was only a starting point. She interviewed numerous other women and told their stories too. Aramburo, said her aim was to help remove the stigma associated with the condition—which strikes 30% of Alaskan moms—and provide resources for new moms suffering from profound sadness and anxiety. Her station committed a generous amount of airtime to the topic and recently re-aired the entire report as a one-hour special.

Tompkins said first-person works best with taboo topics that people “historically don’t talk about,” such as depression and suicide. Stories about breast or colon cancer are overdone and reporters interested in those conditions should look outside the newsroom. “Surely you can find stories about that without it being you or being somebody in your office,” he said.

There are also signs that viewer appetite for station-based medical stories is not unlimited.

Earlier this year, when Tribune’s Fox affiliate WXIN Indianapolis ran TV and web segments about reporter Zach Myer’s bout with skin cancer, some viewers blanched. Facebook follower Chuck Shadowens commented, “Alright!! A new cancer victim to exploit!! Bravo, WXIN59 did not waste time finding a new sucker and they did it from within!!” Another WXIN Facebook follower Bill Campbell added, “Another media deathwatch?…Almost everyone knows someone who has cancer or has died from cancer…and this is not something we need continually shoved in our faces in the name of ‘news.’”

Avoiding exploitation and offering a range of subjects and viewpoints—in medical cases, sometimes literally life-or-death decisions—happen when stations remember their journalistic mission, McBride said.

“Medical stories are by their very nature super sensational and want to get a lot of hits,” she said. “I think a lot of newsrooms, when they go into first person medical stories, they presume there are journalistic reasons behind it and they just go in and do a sensational story. If you want to avoid that, articulate what the journalistic purpose is and how the first-person story is going to get you to that purpose.”

Tompkins also reminds those watching at home or online that TV industry realities often dictate the timing of stations’ reports. “You can almost always know whether this will be true public service or self-aggrandizement by the month that it runs,” he said. “If it’s running in [the traditional ratings sweeps periods of] February, May, July or November, you can almost guarantee it’s just pure promotion.”

—Diana Marszalek contributed to this report.

When Lu Ann Cahnlearned in 1991 that she had breast cancer, the WCAU Philadelphia news anchor decided she had to share her personal battle with viewers. “My news director at the time was like, ‘No way, you can’t do that,’” recalls Cahn. “He said, ‘If you do this, you’ll always be the reporter who had breast cancer.’ I was like, ‘I hope I get to see that day.’ I was not sure I would survive.”

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