COVID News: Perspective From a Physician Journalist

John Whyte, MD, MPH; Jonathan LaPook, MD


July 08, 2020

Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

  • News reporters try to dispassionately give people the facts, an understanding, and a perspective to evaluate stories.

  • Communicating science and anti-science bias can be challenging.

  • Being a physician provides additional insight when reporting on COVID-19.

  • In deciding what news to cover, it is important to filter who to listen to and determine what stands out among thousands of pages of information.

  • Advice for medical students interested in journalism: Use software to translate videos, find an expert, and pursue what you consider interesting.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Whyte, MD, MPH: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD.

Today I have a very special guest: Dr Jonathan LaPook. He is the chief medical correspondent at CBS News and a professor of medicine at NYU Langone School of Medicine.

Dr LaPook, thanks for joining me.

Jonathan LaPook, MD: Great to be here. It's nice to be talking with another internist. I'm also a gastroenterologist, but my first love is internal medicine.

Whyte: Let's talk about the coverage of COVID-19. Some say that it's too much doom and gloom, and that we're talking down to consumers and not really giving them the full scope of the evidence. What are your thoughts in terms of how well the news and social media are doing?

LaPook: I've got to tell you, I never know what "the media' is. I am too busy doing clinical stuff and my stories for CBS to be investigating and researching "the media." In terms of what I'm doing, that's really all I can talk about.

We try to dispassionately give people the facts, an understanding, and the perspective so that they can start evaluating things. Right now, people are saying, "What should I do?" Then they would give me something specific: "I have an aunt. She's coming over. She has a hairdresser who has a brother who went into the park and bumped into an old friend."

Rather than address each specific thing, I try to teach them — which gets back to how to talk to your audience — about what the science is. We go over the incubation period. You have to understand that when you are bumping into somebody or deciding to have somebody over, they're not just coming over. Everybody they've been in contact with for 14 days is coming over. Explain what incubation period means and the other layers, like, "Where are you in the world? Are you in an area of the country where there are a lot of cases, where there are a few cases? Let me tell you how to find that out. You can Google the name of your state and COVID-19, and you can drill down to even the county."

Ask, "How vulnerable are you?" Start explaining that if you're at increased vulnerability, then you might want to take more precautions. Explain how the virus spreads. Is it droplet, aerosols, or fomites? All of those things. Over and over again, I've tried to come back to that.

Try to stay away from the politics as much as possible and just say, "Look, I'm talking to everybody. Whatever political spectrum and wherever you are, I want you to try to understand the science." If I can explain the science and have you embrace science, which has been a theme for me... I've done it straight to camera at CBS Sunday Morning several times. We have to embrace science. That's the best thing I can do as a physician and as a journalist.

Whyte: How important is being a physician to your reporting as a journalist? The argument of some people is that we're not hearing from enough doctors in the government. We're not seeing enough of Dr Fauci or of Dr Adams, the surgeon general, or Dr Redfield [director of the CDC]. Is being a physician a critical component?

LaPook: There are excellent journalists who cover medicine and science who are not physicians. It does give me added insight into what's going on. I can understand the science.

Because I'm still practicing medicine, I have patients who were sick right at the beginning when it was breaking out. I had an entire family develop COVID-19 and the whole spectrum of illness. When I'm looking at the camera, I'm thinking about talking to one patient. There's an important question you're implying, which is the line for me as a physician. Who died and made me America's doctor, right?

I try not to say, "Look, here's what you should do," because that's not my job as a journalist. If I do that, I might cross over and say, "I am now telling you what I do in my private practice." I try to make it clear that I'm not reporting, because it can get confusing. Is he telling me what he believes, what he does in his anecdotal life as a doctor, or is he reporting based on data? I try to do that. I do believe that we should be hearing from the physicians.

Communicating science is really tough, as you well know. There's nuance. Words matter. The order of the words matter. Even when I think I'm doing a great job in communicating with my patients, there's still an infinite number of ways I can miscommunicate. I now have 40 years of experience as a physician, and I'm sure I still get it wrong with communication. I don't think it's something that is easy for somebody who's not a scientist, a researcher, a clinician to do if you're talking to the public. I'd rather hear that straight from people who are public health officials, physicians, or scientists who understand how people can miscommunicate.

Whyte: Physicians are not known to be the best communicators. I want to tell you about this tweet I read last night that was directed to me. It said, "All you doctors are debating P values and the quality of preprint articles." The public is reading this type of post on Facebook that said, "You know, people are dying from wearing masks, and the government is covering it up. That's why you're not reading anything about it." We're using this parlance in debating things and missing the big picture for most consumers. What's your reaction to that criticism?

LaPook: It's very salient and very important. About a year or so ago, I did a piece for CBS Sunday Morning about people who are vaccine hesitant. It's a similar type of an issue. Dr Anthony Fauci, who's the head of infectious diseases for the NIH, was frustrated. Last week he talked about an anti-science bias that is making it very difficult to communicate.

Recently, a survey revealed that a third of the people are saying that they won't even take a vaccine if one is available and shown to be safe and effective. We need to think about smart ways to reach out to people. There's a lot of misinformation. I've seen that about masks ─ that the carbon dioxide builds up inside and causes harm ─ which is nonsense. We know that masks can save lives.

Whyte: What do you say to health professionals who say, "Dr LaPook, you have a big platform. You're on CBS News." For those physicians that want to get out and have their voice, it's a crowded space. They may say, "You know what? I've got 50 followers on Twitter, 100 people on Instagram." How would they be a productive voice in this very crowded social media space and a 24-hour news discussion?

LaPook: It's a really good point. There are a lot of people talking and fewer people listening. As a physician, I love the activism in terms of getting out, organizing, and trying to communicate.

You're seeing people using TikTok and trying to say to wear a mask. Try to reach the different age groups. Go to your medical center or medical society, your local area and place of worship. Think out of the box.

You can't underestimate the importance of communicating clearly to your patients. As an internist, I tend to spend a lot of time with my patients. It's a luxury. There may be physicians who have a new patient every 15 minutes. Where's the time for the discussion about wearing face masks and why to do it?

Doctors need to talk about these issues with their patients — not just about the face masks, but other things. Do you have a loaded gun in the house? Is there a child there? Topics that are important for public health. Doctors who see patients one-on-one, there's a vital role for them.

Whyte: How do you decide what news to cover? There's so much out there that you really have to be selective. Is it what you're interested in?

LaPook: It's a combination. There are some things that just fall in your lap. You wake up in the morning, there's a new study. It's just a constantly changing landscape. Right now we're seeing spikes in numbers and you have to respond to what the latest counts are. There's all that news of the day.

Then there are the things of interest to me that I think are really important. I've done a number of pieces like that. It's important to have a filter and know who to listen to. You don't just do "Dr Google," because you're going to get a lot of nonsense. You have to know where to go.

I think the CDC's website is terrific. The problem is that there are thousands of pages of information. What we're not seeing in this outbreak that we saw in previous outbreaks (eg, Ebola, H1N1 [swine flu], and Zika) are television appearances where [public health experts] stand up and say, "Here's what I think today."

Most people aren't going to go to the CDC website and just explore. We need more guidance from the public health sectors, and I feel that must be frustrating for them. They are experts and have been training their entire careers for this. To a much greater extent than a lot of us think they should be, they've been sidelined in terms of communicating to us. So hopefully they'll be coming back.

Whyte: What advice do you have for medical students and young physicians who have a particular interest in journalism and reporting on social media?

LaPook: Do it. Especially now, you can do things on your own. You can do a Zoom call with somebody. You can create content, edit it yourself, and send it around. People love enterprising people. They also like one-man bands.

I did this hour interview with Kimberly Prather, who's the aerosol expert, and Joe Allen [assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health]. Guess what got aired on the evening news? Two 12-second soundbites. I was so frustrated by that. There was such great information.

I literally downloaded software to do the editing, and I listened to a bunch of tutorials. I hadn't done it in about 13 years, and I cut it myself (a multicam edit). It wasn't that hard. And then I put it up online. I think we underestimate that people can handle it. One video was 18 minutes and the other was 23 minutes. I got into this by total luck. It was not planned.

Whyte: You can't leave us hanging now. Tell us how you got in.

LaPook: I helped edit a book, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Complete Home Medical Guide. I was on the Today show to push it for Columbia. I didn't get any money from it. It was all going to the institution, but I was up there pushing it.

I met Katie Couric. I became friendly with her. Anyway, fade out and fade in, in March of 2006 she calls me and says, "I have a business proposal. How would you like to be a medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News?" I said, "Do you have to know anything?" She said, "No." I said, "Great. I can do that." I didn't know how to read a teleprompter, read and write a script, or how to sound like myself, and I had to learn that.

It's easy to reach out to people. Most people will answer you. If you find an expert, something that you think is interesting, go reach out to them, do a Zoom interview, create a 30-minute piece or two at different lengths for the news, and then submit it around. See what happens.

Whyte: I want to thank you for taking time today to provide your insights as well as the reporting that you're doing to keep us all informed.

LaPook: Thank you so much. Take care.

Whyte: Thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context.

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