Don't let the facts overwhelm the story, says 60 Minutes producer

Published on
December 3, 2009

In 2008, Henry Schuster was "the new guy" at 60 Minutes. Everyone else at the show had already taken the big interviews, the politicians and bigwigs who would be at the center of many reports. So Schuster took a different approach: "I would rather set the table for our viewers by addressing the issue, not the candidates," Schuster told the 2009 California Health Journalism Fellows at this evening's keynote address. "We wanted to do a health care story."

He and his team decided to focus a narrative on a group called Remote Area Medical, an organization that began its work by dropping medical care into the Amazon, but changed its focus to providing healthcare in America. The need, it turned out, was exceptional. It would not be a story told around "the big interview," but would capture the crux of the health care debate and "lay out to the audience what is was really like to have insurance and not have insurance."

The Peabody award-winning piece Schuster produced, "Lifeline," told the stories of people who seek help from Remote Area Medical in Knoxville, Tennessee. In the segment, a volunteer doctor says that most of the hundreds of people who take advantage of the organization's free, temporary clinics (which they call "medical expeditions") are middle-aged people with families who are employed but underinsured. They often come in for dental and vision care, but need primary care and follow-up for serious diseases as well. The volunteers, said Schuster, treat patients with a huge amount of dignity. Journalists need to do the same, and "never make anyone feel ashamed to be there."

"What we were going for was a story with demonstrable impact," said Schuster. Remote Area Medical, which was treating 17,000 patients on $250,000 per year, got $3 million in donations within days of the story airing. But more importantly, viewers said that they did not know that so many Americans were so desperate for health care.

Schuster and his team did a lot of research, but he stresses that the facts and figures do not make the most compelling stories. "We had all these facts busting and buzzing in our heads," he said, "but we tried to let that inform the story, not overwhelm it." Even though most of his research did not make it into a report, "it should satisfy you that you are on firm editorial ground."

To the journalists at the first seminar of the 2009 California Health Journalism Fellowship, he offered optimism about the future of news. "I don't know of a more critical time, a harder time, but really a more exciting time to reporting on stories, but especially this story," Schuster said. A weekend of fellowship, he said, should help remind journalists of the importance of their work.