MLA’13: Plenary II – Richard Besser, ABC News

The John P. McGovern Award Lecture. Richard Besser is ABC News’s senior health and medical editor, providing medical analysis and commentary for all ABC News broadcasts and platforms, including World News with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, and Nightline.

Overall an interesting talk from an engaging speaker, though on the Twitter backchannel there was some chatter about how relevant it was to medical librarians. General theme was the importance of getting accurate, science-based information out, but no explicit connections to librarians. His focus was more on the end product, the narrative that carries the information in a way that the public will pay attention to, not so much on how that science is identified and gathered. This is certainly relevant to anyone who is trying to communicate technical information to an audience unfamiliar with it – for example, teaching students how to use databases, etc. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if the keynotes at a conference aren’t laser-focused on how the speaker engages with librarians and libraries – it’s a good way to find new ways of thinking about how we do what we do.

First outbreak he investigated was in Boston – fell in love with science. Views his role on NBC news as a public health role. Tells stories now instead of doing powerpoints.

Head of terrorism preparedness and emergency response for CDC (took the job right after Katrina hit). Jan 2009, In Israel. Why is the public here so well prepped for disasters? We’re not in the US. Hour after he arrived, war with Gaza started. Expected to be sent home, but wasn’t. Philosophy is to just keep going.

Asked by Obama transition team to be interim director of CDC. Told CDC needed major changes. Too much focus on low-probability events (terrorism, pandemics, etc) – need to focus on more common health issues (obesity, diabetes, etc).

Bird flu – H5N1. Flu is “a nightmare disease…it has ways of avoiding our immune system.” Different strains for different species. Panemic -> new strain that people don’t have immunity to. H5N1 would occasionally jump from poultry to people in places where ppl had very very close contact, then rarely jump to caregiver. So lots of $ to manufacture vaccines quickly, planning, exercises, etc. Then heard – two cases of swine flu (H1N1) in CA, TX. CA ppl unrelated, TX no pig contact. Simultaneously severe pneumonia in Mexico, US and Canada helping to test.  Canada confirms it’s H1N1. Get outbreak responses going via White House.

Importance of words in communication – different words get different responses.

Started planning response. Containment not possible. Take aggressive action – “you only get one chance to get ahead of it….if you go out hard, you can always dial back your response.” Frequent, transparent communication, with actions based on best available science. What are the facts, what has history shown us? Direct dollars and people at actions likely to have the largest impact.

Decided they would not turn down a single interview request. Communication is key. Conflict communication – “be first, be right, be credible.” But there’s a tension. So part of the message is “things are uncertain, we will let you know as things change.”

At a White House briefing – with John Brennan and Janet Napolitano. But almost all questions went to Bresser. Going well until Fox reporter repeatedly asked “could this be terrorism?

Week later – looking highly deadly in Mexico. Had hospital data but not data from community – always see patients who are sickest. What about milder cases? Briefing for cabinet and President. Obama greets and says – “every department has a role, and our actions need to be based on the best available science.” Sec Clinton asks – difference between seasonal & pandemic flu? Showed him that political leaders don’t know these things. Same types of questions and concerns from reporters and neighbors – need to translate the science into clear explanations.

Ended with NBC News clips on pneumonia vaccines in Africa and sports injuries in children. Final thanks to medical librarians as a huge resource throughout his career.