Words matter. That’s the message pediatrician, journalist and public health advocate Dr. Richard Besser shared during a public lecture and private audience with College of Public Health and Human Sciences students in April.
Capping off National Public Health Week festivities, Dr. Besser, chief health and medical editor for ABC News, shared his personal story on the road to public health and the importance of communication.
From using social media to responding to a journalist’s call, to using emotion and avoiding jargon, Dr. Besser told students they have to make public health visible when it’s working instead of being reactionary and defensive when there’s an emergency.“It’s a public health emergency when a journalist calls you,” he said. “Someone is offering you free publicity for something you are passionate about.”
In an interview with KEZI 9 News, he said, “I want them (students) to understand that communication really matters. It’s not something that should be an afterthought in what they’re doing in public health. If we want people to change their behavior and improve health, you really need to put communication front and center.”
Dr. Besser should know. He reaches millions of viewers each day, one sound bite at a time. “I’ll talk with anyone about health,” says the pediatrician who started off as an economics major before transitioning to public health and television. “The first job you get doesn’t have to be the job you do the rest of your life,” he said. “Now, I practice public health at ABC News.”
He provided advice to students entering the field and shared the three questions he asks when considering taking on a new opportunity: Will I learn something? Will it allow me to make a positive contribution? Will I work with good people I can learn from?
He even offered a thesis suggestion: What is the impact of media on public health – the good and the bad?
“It was so wonderful and such an amazing experience,” said Public Health student Alicia Sanders. “Dr. Besser was really inspirational. He looks at people and how people can bring meaning to a story. Public health isn’t just about statistics or a disease, it is about people and how we affect their lives. He made me proud to be a public health student.”
Dr. Besser left students with the message that they’re on the right track and that there is increasing interest in public health. “We’ll always need public health; it’s an avenue that’s always going to be there,” he said. “I can think of nothing more exciting than a career in public health,” he said. “To spend each day doing something interesting and that makes the world a better place is really exciting.”
In the news
Watch full video of Dr. Besser’s Provost’s Lecture Series talk.
On getting through to the media: Tell stories, develop characters, be consistent, stay on message and respond quickly when the media calls.
On dealing with tough questions: “Stick to facts. Stick to the science.”
On jargon: Avoid it. Phrases and words such as “social determinants of health” don’t mean anything to someone outside of public health, he said. Consider your choice of words and the impact they have. For instance, the response elicited from using “rise” versus “epidemic.”
On his many careers: “I get bored easily,” he said. “I like a steep learning curve; I don’t get bored as fast.”
On politicians: “Politicians don’t get the science,” he said. “Science can get you so far, but you elect people to make policy decisions.”
His thought when asked to join ABC News: “It’s the silliest thing ever.”
On health care: “Our health care system isn’t what gives people health. It’s about the choices we make every day. That’s where health comes from.”
On health: “Everyone wants a quick fix,” he said. “People don’t want to hear that they should eat right and exercise to maintain health.“