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Physicians and the press: What to say, what not to say


If you know the right way to deal with journalists, they can help promote your research, your practice, or both.

Physicians and the press

What to say, what not to say

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If you know the right way to deal with journalists, they can help promote your research, your practice, or both.

By Andrew N. Wilner, MD
Neurologist/Newport, RI

The media follow medical topics quite closely these days. Whether you're presenting research at a conference, sounding off about the malpractice crisis, or opening a new office, chances are a journalist may be calling you for quotes, information, or both.

What's in it for you? In addition to raising public awareness, a news story can reflect positively on you. It may attract patients to your practice or clinical trials, or influence research funding.

But most doctors are woefully unprepared for an encounter with a journalist. I was no exception: Several years ago, I was interviewed at a meeting of the American Epilepsy Society. I had just presented a poster on the ketogenic diet, a relatively arcane topic at a relatively obscure meeting. I didn't think it was a topic that would attract national attention. Nevertheless, an eager reporter thrust a tape recorder in my face and began firing questions. I muddled through.

For a variety of reasons, many physicians are wary of the press. During one interview I did at a medical meeting, a well-respected doctor confided in me, "I fear reporters," he said. "They frequently overstate or oversimplify my research findings, and that worries me."

Don't let his fears become yours. These tips can help make your interview with a journalist pleasant and productive.

What to do

Be nice! How you treat the interviewer will ultimately reflect on you in print. For example, a journalist might write, "Dr. Jones emphasized that the final results for his clinical trial await further data collection and analysis," or "Dr. Jones admitted that his results are preliminary and could change at any minute." Which version would you prefer?

Put your news into context. What was your motivation? How will patients benefit? If you're talking about a new drug, for instance, don't forget to quantify the results. A good quote might sound something like this: "We've only tested this drug in 20 patients. We're planning a larger, multicenter study of 1,000 patients before we submit the drug for FDA approval."

If a reporter catches you off guard, say you'd like a little more time to think about the subject, especially if it pertains to something you weren't directly involved with.

Ask the name of the publication, and when the article will appear. If it's running in a newspaper, chances are it'll be very short, with perhaps only one quote from you. Make it a good one! You might also ask who else the journalist plans to interview for the story. If you find out that a competitor will be included, it may help you frame your comments more carefully.

Exchange business cards and e-mail addresses with the writer. If you don't have a business card, order a supply and always carry several in your wallet or purse. Otherwise, take the time to write down all of your information for the journalist, legibly. If you can't be reached to sort out any confusing details, the story might get scrapped or be printed with outright mistakes, misleading information, or both.

Ask to see the final version. It may be out of the question depending on the publication's policies and the journalist's deadlines, but it's worth asking. The writer may appreciate the offer. I sometimes send a story I'm working on to the doctors I interviewed, particularly if it contains subject matter I'm not familiar with. But, in general, most news organizations don't permit sources to review text before it's published, nor are they legally required to.

If a journalist does let you review a story, get your comments and suggestions to him within 24 hours. It's supposed to be news!

What not to do

Avoid jargon. This should be obvious, but many physicians resort to technical terms because they don't want to misstate the facts. Unfortunately, rather than clarifying things, jargon only serves to muddle them. Think about what you want to say. Take your time. Then explain why this latest news is important, in terms that a layperson can comprehend.

On the other hand, if the article is for a specialty organization—say, Neurology Today, which goes to members of the American Academy of Neurology—you can speak in terms that a neurologist would typically use.

Don't go "off the record." A reporter may include what you say in the article, either because it appears to be important, or even by accident. When I'm taking notes in a hurry, I often don't remember what's on the record and what isn't. If you don't want it printed, don't say it! Moreover, "no comment" isn't a sufficient response to a question. It only arouses suspicion and forces the reporter to go elsewhere for his information. If you can't comment on something, explain why.

Don't assume the interviewer knows what you're talking about. The better the journalist understands the topic, the better the article will be. Go slowly, and explain things thoroughly. For instance, a discussion of a new antiepileptic drug might begin this way: "Seizures result from abnormal electrical discharges in the brain. Patients with seizures often have to take antiepileptic drugs several times a day. Even then, about 20 percent of patients still have seizures. The new drug I spoke about today is interesting because it has a novel mechanism of action and might work better than the older drugs."

Don't be condescending. Although few people in the media are MDs or DOs, many have backgrounds in science or medically related fields. One of my reporter colleagues, who has a chemistry degree, covers cardiac meetings almost exclusively. He's quite knowledgeable about the various research topics, and takes pride in his work.

Don't worry about jeopardizing publication of your study. You'll be fine as long as you stick to the material you presented in your talk and don't provide additional information, graphs, or figures. If you've already submitted your data for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, check with the editors regarding any specific press policy they may have.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you encounter a journalist who wants to give you your 15 minutes of fame. I hope you do, because it might just be me!


The author, is who is board-certified in internal medicine and neurology, is a medical journalist who writes for CNS News Magazine, Epilepsy & Behavior, and other publications.

Andrew Wilner. Physicians and the press: What to say, what not to say. Medical Economics Jul. 11, 2003;80:87.

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