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Robert Bazell: All Reporting is Community Reporting

Robert Bazell: All Reporting is Community Reporting

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Robert Bazell doesn't mince his words when it comes to what he thinks makes good journalism. The three-time Emmy winner and NBC News' chief science and health correspondent doesn't put much stock in journalism school.

"Being a good reporter isn't about having the academic credentials," Bazell explained. What counts, he said in his keynote speech to this year's California Broadcast Fellows, is the ability to talk to the right people. "I think that all reporting is community reporting," he said.

It was having reliable sources of information that helped him be among the first to report on the outbreak of swine flu. Bazell's first April report ran on NBC Nightly News ahead of other television news stations. "We didn't even know there was an outbreak in Mexico, yet," he says. But his experience covering the SARS outbreak in 1997 and then avian flu in 2003 made him vigilant in following up on the potential foor a new flu virus in 2009. He also has a doctorate in immunology from U.C. Berkeley, so to him, "the influenza was always fascinating."

Covering an outbreak, though, is walking a fine line. Health officials and journalists need to be honest but not alarmist. "Making people scared inappropriately is something many news organizations try, but it's not responsible journalism," Bazell said.

But the need for information is clear. A web Q&A answering basic questions about the outbreak had 1.3 million unique readers, an unprecedented amount for normally slow Sundays, according to Bazell. While news consumers demonstrated tremendous interest in the story, he said that it is inevitable that the media be accused of overreacting. On April 29, beneath massive coverage of President Obama's first 100 days in office, Bazell did on a story about the flu not being as severe as it initially appeared. "You say what you know when you know it and try to be as honest as possible," he said.

Ellen Iverson, Executive Director Center for Community Translation, a program at the USC School of Medicine that focuses on bringing medical research into communities, says that from her perspective, "An important responsibility that scientists and reporters working in this area has is to literally translate." Health care providers and their patients need information, they need spokespeople to report information to their communities accurately, she said.

For Bazell, getting that information out is part of the art of journalism. "If you get into the nuts and bolts of health care reform, people's eyes can glaze over really quickly," he said. Telling compelling stories in "bite-sized pieces" while still preserving nuance is key to telling good health stories in broadcast news.

Good journalism aside, his strongest piece of advice for the fellows was this: "You should get your flu shot."


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