Expertise on call: Ward
(Photo by Michael Wichita)
These days, the media debuts new infectious diseases like they're Vin Diesel's latest release. Katie Couric on the couch with smallpox: "What's it like to return to the stage after twenty-five years?" Joan Rivers and West Nile pan outfits at the Emmys. Tim Russert grills SARS on its links to al Qaeda.
TV sound bytes from doctors are standard fare whenever one of these stories pops up. So when an outbreak of staph infections found its way to D.C. in February, it needed a spokesperson.
That person turned out to be Dr. Doug Ward, a local gay physician whose expertise in the field of HIV and AIDS has earned him media coverage in the past, both local and national.
"It's by no means my first time," he says. "I'm very comfortable having a news crew come over."
Ward commented on the staph outbreak on three local news programs: Fox 5, ABC 7 and NewsChannel 8. He first heard about the outbreak at its onset from Dr. Peter Ruane, the Los Angeles physician who was the first to identify a rash of cases among the gay male population in that city. Because many staph infections strike people living with AIDS, Ruane e-mailed HIV specialists throughout the country asking if they had seen any cases as well.
"I saw one case last fall," says Ward, "but I didn't even really pay attention then. With this e-mail, I became aware that [an outbreak] did exist. By the beginning of this year, I'd seen a couple of cases."
His previous media coverage has made Ward a well-known figure, so that when TV stations need an expert in his field, he often gets called by default, he says.
Health reports have become more and more ubiquitous on TV news programs, raising questions about the accuracy of their reporting. Are complex medical issues fit for the extreme time constraints that limit television? Ward is aware of how the rapid-fire style of such reports can distort a medical issue. He's had his comments taken out of context before and has learned to be careful in his wording.
"Now I'm very aware. I make sure I coin my phrases," he says. "I have mixed feelings about [TV news health reports]. I would say that it's almost impossible for them to do a good job reporting on some of the things they report on."
And the idea of viewers only getting half the story because of his truncated sound bytes concerns him as a professional.
"I've seen a lot of variation in the quality of people the stations send over," he says. "The good ones will work with me and say, ‘Okay, you've got to say it in five seconds' and make sure that what they record is appropriate for that."
Ward says that Laura Evans of Fox 5 gave him the best interview on the staph topic. He describes her as being "extremely well prepared" with "very good, intelligent questions." But a reporter from another news outlet interviewed him for the same story and "was really finding out about it for the first time from me."
This sort of poor reporting can lead to media hype.
"Killer Bacteria Infecting Gay Men! Is it coming from the gym?!" Ward mocks. "This sort of story absolutely lends it self to sensationalism."
But even though the gay angle may be giving the story a hook that sells it, Ward says that the characterization of staph as being a gay disease is accurate nonetheless.
"The gay angle makes it a little more exotic to report," he says. "Certainly memories of the first HIV reports are on people's minds, but it's a legitimate angle. I haven't seen any anti-gay slants."
Though Ward puts himself out there as a gay physician with an overwhelming gay patient population, he hasn't heard his sexuality mentioned in any of the reports, and the coverage hasn't earned him extra business.
"In the distant past, when I did HIV stories, once in a blue moon I would get a new patient who would mention that they saw me on TV. It gives you some credibility. But that hasn't happened on this one."
Still, Ward makes no attempt to hide his delight about all of the publicity.
"The first time, I was very nervous," he says. "Now, I just like to be able to call up my mother and tell her to make sure she watches the news. Everyone likes to smile for the camera."