Editor: Roland Torres, MD, FAANS, FACS Spring 2012  
In this Issue...
Message from the Chair
Neurotrauma and Critical Care Web Page Update
Sports Medicine Committee
Clinical Research Update:
ProTECT III
When the Cameras All Are On You
  When the Cameras All Are On You

Richard B. Rodgers, MD

In January of 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was spearheading a community event in Tucson, Ariz., when a gunman opened fire on its attendees, killing six and wounding 13 — most notably, Giffords herself. Giffords suffered a gunshot wound to the head; consequently, she was thrust into the media spotlight, as was her neurosurgeon: G. Michael Lemole Jr., MD. Seeing Dr. Lemole speak about the tragedy at subsequent press conferences reminded me of a similar situation I experienced a couple years ago (albeit it on a statewide scale, not a national one). My situation also involved a high-profile victim with a similar injury, and a perpetrator who garnered a lot of public attention. Interestingly enough, about a week after I agreed to write this article, yet another high-profile injury occurred in my city, and I just happened to be on call. Again, I found myself in front of multiple TV cameras.

The press conference is an unfortunate (and, thankfully, rare) side-effect of our occupation, especially for those of us who take care of neurotrauma. In the case of the Tucson shooting, I thought Dr. Lemole did a spectacular job, and many of my non-medical family members and friends agreed. He explained exactly what happened in an understandable way and clearly outlined what could be expected in the coming days. I certainly am no media expert, but I have learned a few things about dealing with the press in acute trauma situations. My friends had less-than-kind things to say about other medical professionals who commented on the events in Tucson, so I figured it would be good to point out the right things to do when the cameras are on you.

Spend a lot of time with the patient and family first.
If there is going to be a press conference, the patient and his or her family likely will know. Due to privacy rules — and, more importantly, out of respect for the patient and the family — it is important to ascertain what information they want released and what details they want withheld. Neither the press nor the public have a right to know anything about the situation; even public figures still have the right to keep their medical affairs private. The press is allowed to know whatever the patient and family deem appropriate. In my experience, hospital administrators have been adept at handling media requests. There also may be special legal circumstances relating to criminal investigations (all of mine have, thus far), so discussing the situation with the appropriate legal representatives prior to a press conference also is wise.

Be brief.
The best acute medical press conferences I have seen have all been short and unedited. It would seem that the easiest thing to do after introducing yourself is to give a brief synopsis of the entire situation as it relates to your involvement, from the first call or encounter to what was happening just prior to your microphone being turned on. Then, answer the anticipated questions before they are asked. For hospitalized patients, the press will want to know what to expect next. Usually, it is inappropriate to speculate on long-term outcomes in an acute situation, so just speak on the immediate goal or concern, for example — survival of the injury, preventing a complication of the injury or the like. Save your ideas on the long-term prognosis for later. "Yes," "no" and "we just don’t know yet" are very good answers. "We’ll know more in the next 24 to 48 hours" also explains a lot without saying much at all.

Another good reason to be brief is that what you say will be edited for later broadcasts in a cut-and-paste fashion. If you give a long speech, it will be chopped into sound bites and put back together to fill a short slot on the nightly news, possibly by someone who doesn’t understand which parts are important. Comments may sound out of context, or even contradictory, when presented this way, so don’t give them too much to edit.

Be honest, but choose your words wisely.
Saying the same thing to the press as you say to the family (leaving out whatever details the family asks to keep private) eliminates the possibility of confusion for the family. Remember, they will probably see you on TV — you don’t want them to hear something different from you on the news than what you told them in person. The press and the public are, in general, laypersons like the family. Speak to them in the same terms. If you use too many complicated medical terms, it will generate more questions, more sound bites and more opportunity for misinterpretation.

Also, avoid using terms with negative connotations. At one of the press conferences for the Tucson incident, the word “dead” was used several times to describe some of the victims who had passed away. It was truthful, but my wife cringed every time she heard it. I did, too.

Talk to everyone at once.
Usually in a high-profile incident, all the news networks will know of the story, and hospital administration will assist with getting them all in one place for a press conference. Doing so will allow all the media outlets to hear the exact same message — again, in an effort to avoid confusion. A corollary to this is to avoid being grabbed by one particular reporter or network for a few extra questions after the press conference. Speaking to one media outlet in this fashion provides another opportunity to give information that may appear contradictory after the sound bites have been edited; it also appears as if you’ve given an exclusive interview.

If you handle acute neurosurgery in your city, there is a reasonable chance that someone from the media will call on you at some point to ask about your patient. Whether you have a high-profile patient, such as a congresswoman, or a high-profile event, such as the shooting of a police officer, the press will assert their need to know. For those of you who haven’t had to lead a press conference yet, consider yourselves lucky, thus far. When it does happen, keep the above suggestions in mind; hopefully, they will serve you well.

Click here for the Summer 2009 edition of the Congress Quarterly, which focuses on neurosurgery and the media.


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