Published on Jul 07, 2020

  • The media should dispassionately provide the facts so the public can understand the situation and take action.
  • Communicating science and COVID news is challenging. "We should be hearing from the physicians," says a CBS journalist-doctor.
  • Look to public health experts who have trained their entire careers for this - a pandemic - and are a valuable source of COVID information.
  • Doctors are encouraged to talk about current issues with their patients, including face masks or guns in the home.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: 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: Great to be here. Nice to be talking with another internist, even though I'm also a gastroenterologist, but my first love is internal medicine.

JOHN WHYTE: All right. Well, I don't hold the GI, uh, degree against you. But let's talk about the coverage of COVID-19, you know, some people will say that it's too much doom and gloom, that we're talking down to consumers. We're not really giving them the full scope of the evidence. What are your thoughts in terms of how well is the media doing? Let's start kind of with the news media, and then we'll turn to social.

JONATHAN LAPOOK: I-- I got to tell you. I-- I never know what the media is, you know? And I'm too busy doing, you know, clinical stuff and my stories for CBS to be investigating and researching the media. But I think in terms of what I'm doing, that's really what all I can-- all I can talk about.

We try to dispassionately give people the facts, the understanding, the perspective, so that they can start evaluating things. Um, you know, right now, people are saying, you know, what should I do. And then they would give me something specific, right? 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, you know?

So rather than do that and trying to address each specific thing, I try to teach them, which gets back to, like, how do you talk to your audience, about what the science is. So we go over what's the incubation period. You have to understand that when you-- 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. Uh, and explain to-- what incubation period means. And then, you know, the other layers, like where are you in the world. Are you in an area of the country where there's a lot of cases, where there's a few cases? And let me tell you how to find that out. You can Google name of your state's space, COVID-19, you can drill down to even the county.

And then how vulnerable are you? And then start explaining about, you know, if you're at increased vulnerability, then you might want to take more precautions. And then explaining how it spreads. Is it droplet, aerosols, fomites, all of that things. So that's, 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, where-- wherever you are, and 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 Sun-- CBS Sunday Morning several times. We have to embrace science. Then I think that's the best thing I can do as a physician and as a journalist.

JOHN WHYTE: How important is being a physician to your reporting as a journalist? The argument of some people will be that, you know what? We're not hearing from enough doctors in the government. You know, we're not seeing enough of Dr. Fauci or Dr. Adams, the surgeon general, or Dr. Redford. So is being a physician a critical impo-- component?

JONATHAN LAPOOK: I think there are excellent journalists who cover medicine and science who are not physicians for sure. It does give me added insight into what's going on. I can understand the science. And then I also, because I'm still practicing medicine, John, you know, I have patients who were sick right at the beginning when it was breaking out.

I had an entire family develop COVID-19. All sorts-- the whole spectrum of illness. When I'm looking at the camera, I'm-- I'm thinking about talking to one patient. But you-- there's an important question you're implying there which is, the line-- the line for me as a physician, you know? You know, who died and made me America's doctor, right?

So it's-- I try not to say, look, here's what you should do. Because that's not my job as a journalist. If I do 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, right? Because it can get confusing.

Well, what-- is he telling me what he believes, what he does in his anecdotal life as a doctor, or is he reporting based on data? So I try to do that. I do believe that we should be hearing from the physicians. I think that communicating science is really tough, as you well know.

There's nuance. Words matter. The order-- the order of the words matter. Even when I think I'm doing a great job with communication with my patients, there's still an infinite number of ways I can miscommunicate. We have-- I now have 40 years of experience as a physician. I still get it wrong, I'm sure, with communication.

So 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. And I'd rather hear that straight from people who are public health officials, who are physicians, who are scientists who understand how people can miscommunicate.

JOHN WHYTE: And as you know, physicians are not known to be the best communicators. And-- and I want to tell you about this tweet I actually read last night that was directed to me. And it said, all you doctors are debating p values, uh, and the quality of preprint articles. And the public is reading this type of post on Facebook, which basically said, you know, people are dying from wearing masks, and the government is covering it up.

And that's why you're not reading anything about it. So what's-- you know, we're using this parlance and debating things and missing the big picture, you know, for most consumers. What's your reaction, uh, to that criticism?

JONATHAN LAPOOK: I think it's-- it's very salient, very important, right? So about a year ago is it? Could have been a little more. I did a piece for CBS Sunday Morning about people who are vaccine hesitant. It's a similar type of an issue.

You know, Tony Fauci, you know, Anth-- Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's the Head of Infectious Diseases for the NIH for your viewers who don't know, um, he-- he was frustrated. He talked-- talked last week about an antiscience bias that is making it very difficult, uh, to communicate.

There was a survey recently that said 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. So I think 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, which is nonsense, inside, um, you know, and causes harm. We know that masks can save lives.

JOHN WHYTE: But what do you say to health professionals that will say, oh, Dr. LaPook, you're-- you have a big platform. You're on CBS News. You know, I'm at WebMD. You know, for those physicians that-- that want to get out and have their voice, it's-- it's a crowded space.

And they may be like, you know what? I've got 50 followers on Twitter. 100, you know, people on Instagram. How would they be a productive voice in this very crowded social media space, and a-- and a 24 hour news discussion?

JONATHAN LAPOOK: It's-- it's a really good point. There's a lot of people talking, and very much fewer people, I think, listening. Um, I think in terms of a physician, I love the activism in terms of getting out, organizing, trying to communicate. You're seeing people doing TikTok. I see a bunch of TikTok things of trying to say to wear a mask.

Try to reach the different age groups like that. Um, go to your medical center or your medical society. Or-- or your local area, your place of worship. Think out of the box in terms of that. But then I think you can't underestimate the importance of communicating clearly to your patients.

So right now, we know, like, an intern-- we're both internists. I tend to spend a lot of time with my patients. It's a luxury. But, you know, there may be people who are just, every 15 minutes, every 15 minutes. So where's the time for the discussion about wearing face masks and why to do it?

But I think doctors need to talk about these issues with their patients. And not just the face masks, you know? All the other things. Do you have a loaded gun in the house, and is there a child there, and things like that that are important for public health. And I think doctors one on one with their patients, there's a vital role for them.

JOHN WHYTE: The question that I get asked a lot that I'm going to ask you is, uh, how do you decide what to cover? There's so much out there that you really have to be selective. How do you decide? Is it what you're interested in? You know, we'll talk about the show on 60 Minutes yesterday about the microbiome. But in terms of, you know, the news that you cover, how do you decide?

JONATHAN LAPOOK: You know, 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. There's a new-- you know, right now, it's just a constantly changing landscape. We're seeing spikes. You know, you have to respond to what the latest counts are there. There's all of that news of the day.

And then there are the things that are-- are of interest to me that I think are really important. And I've done a number of-- of pieces like that. I think 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. Uh, you have to know where to go. And by the way, I think the CDC's website is terrific, CDC.goc. The problem is, there are thousands of pages of information. And what we're not seeing in this outbreak that we saw in previous outbreaks like Ebola, and H1N1, with swine flu, um, Zika, was we're not having as many uh, in-person tele-- you know, television appearances where they stand up and say, here's what I think today.

And I think that's really important, because people aren't going to go on the-- on the CDC website and just explore. I mean, most people don't do that. So I think we need more guidance from the public health sections. And I feel that must be frustrating for them, right?

They have been-- they are such experts. They've been training their entire careers for this. And now they've been, to a much greater extent than a lot of us think it should be, they've been sidelined in terms of communicating to us. So hopefully they'll be coming back.

JOHN WHYTE: Dr. LaPook, I wanted to ask, what advice do you have for medical students, for young physicians who have a particular interest in journalism, uh, as well as reporting on-- on social media? Any advice you have for them to get started?

JONATHAN LAPOOK: I think do it. Especially now, you can do things on your own. You can do a Zoom call with somebody. You can edit it yourself. Um, make content. Send it around. People love it enterprising people. They also like one man bands.

I mean, I did this our interview with Kimberly Prather, who's the aerosol expert, and with Joe Allen, another one. And guess what got on the air on the evening news? Like, two 12 second soundbites, right? I was so frustrated by that and there was such great information that I literally downloaded the, um, software to do the editing, and I listened to a bunch of-- 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. Uh, and it's-- and I think we underestimate how people actually-- they can-- they can handle it. One was 18 minutes and the other was 23 minutes. So I think that my advice for your people out there is there's no-- look, I got into this by total luck. It just-- it was not planned. I had helped edit a book, The Columbia Home Health Guide.

JOHN WHYTE: Tell us-- tell us how you got it. You can't leave. You can't leave them hanging now. Tell us how you got in.

JONATHAN LAPOOK: All right. I had-- I had helped edit a book, The Columbia Home Health Guide. I was on The Today Show to push it for Columbia. Uh, I didn't get any money from it. It was-- it was, you know, going to the institution. But I was up there pushing it. I became-- I met Katie Couric. I became friendly with her. Um, and anyway, fade out, fade in, March of 2006, she calls me and says, I have a business proposal. What is it? 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.

And it started. And I really-- I didn't know how to read a teleprompter or how to read a script, how to write a script. Uh, how to sound like myself, all that stuff. And I had to learn that. So I think, people, just-- just do it. Create content, read. Right now, it's easy to-- to reach out to people. Do a Zoom interview.

I think most people will answer you. If you find an expert, find something that you think is interesting, go reach out to them, do a Zoom interview, and create a little minute 30 piece for the news, two 30, different lengths, and then submit it around. See-- see what happens.

JOHN WHYTE: Dr. LaPook, 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.

JONATHAN LAPOOK: Thank you so much. Take care.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context.