The Worst Case Scenario
By George Merlis
What is the worst case scenario in a media interview? Well, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the worst case scenario being asked to speculate on… the worst case scenario.
Here’s a teachable moment about that; it’s based on a recent interview about the Ebola epidemic. As I’ve stipulated in this space before, news today is governed by five F words: Fear, Fury, Fame, Fun and Fascination. Fear comes first because it is the best F word for capturing and holding an audience’s attention. And what could be more fearsome than an out-of-control Ebola epidemic in Africa? Unless, of course, it is an out-of-control Ebola epidemic right here in the United States. Even the most respectable journalists will probe to find the fear factor in a story like that.
Which brings me to the CBS This Morning broadcast of Tuesday, October 7. The Spanish nurse, Terea Romero, was fighting for her life and the Liberian man in the Dallas Hospital, Thomas Duncan, was still alive, but in critical condition. At the beginning of the program, the senior medical correspondent, Dr. Jon LaPook, discussed the evolving Ebola epidemic with hosts Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell.
If I were a journalist looking for a sensational story, here is lead I could have written based on that interview:
“CBS News’ senior medical correspondent warned today that the global Ebola epidemic could spin out of control in the United states. Discussing the first case of Ebola contracted outside of Africa — the infection of a nurse who had been caring for a priest airlifted to Spain after he contracted the virus in Africa — Dr. Jon LaPook, the medical correspondent, said, ‘the worst thing that could possibly happen is that it gets out of control in the United States.’ LaPook’s sobering warning came on CBS This Morning and followed a discussion of the Spanish nurse’s death and the critical condition of a Liberian patient in a Dallas hospital. That man, Thomas Duncan, had traveled to the U.S. after contracting the disease in his homeland.”
That’s pretty frightening. The quote is accurate, but here is what Dr. LaPook really wanted to say about Ebola spreading in the United States: “I do not think it is at all likely and neither does any expert because we know we do know how to control it. We know how to stop it in its tracks.” In fact, Dr.LaPook did say that in the interview. But only AFTER Rose had coaxed the “out of control in the United States” soundbite from him.
Charlie’s question, “What’s the worst case scenario?” was the worst case scenario for his interview subject Dr. LaPook. That’s because the question is an invitation to speculate in the negative; speculation that can be highly misleading. It is also a classic reporter’s trick — one designed to elicit a sensational answer that can be crafted into the sort of story I wrote. Rose phrased his question this way: “What’s the worst case scenario? In other words we understand you don’t want panic. We understand we’re doing everything we can. But what if things go wrong? What’s the worse case?” That appeared to take some of the sensation out of it, but it was still a solicitation to Dr. LaPook to speculate in the dire,and not necessarily realistic, hypothetical.
Two lessons from this for anyone who will be interviewed: First, expect that worst case scenario question; even from a friendly reporter. Second, figure out in advance how you can avoid stoking the flames of needless fear.
Here are two answers Dr. LaPook could have deployed that would have deprived me of my sensational lead:
Label the question: “You are asking me to speculate on unrealistic scenarios. If you want the likely scenario, we know we do know how to control it. We know how to stop it in its tracks.”
Give the likely worst case scenario, don’t indulge the reporter by even addressing the unlikely worst case: “In Africa, Ebola is out of control, but in this country we do know how to control it. We know how to stop it in its tracks, so the worst case scenario here would be the occasional anomaly where containment protocols are breached, leading to a few additional exposures.
Dr. LaPook dug himself a deep hole before he clambered out. He need not have done that. Here is the full CBS This Morning exchange about the “worst case, with boldface on phrases I’m sure the doctor regrets.”
Nora: “Charlie had a great question which is…..”
Charlie, jumping in: “What’s the worst case scenario? In other words we understand you don’t want panic. We understand we’re doing every we can. But what if things go wrong. What’s the worse case?”
LaPook (exasperated): “You journalists! Always asking the worst case scenario. Look, you would walk outside and….”
Charlie: “Shouldn’t we know what could go wrong?”
LaPook: “You know any, everything could go wrong, right? But it’s a matter of percentages. Seriously. I mean you could go outside and you could look up at the sky and it could say ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ What are the odds of that happening? Really close to zero. So if you start worrying about the tiny percentage things…”
Charlie: “I’m not so much talking about worrying; just of being aware….”
LaPook: “Well, okay. So the worst thing that could possibly happen is that it gets out of control in the United States but you again, as I said yesterday….”
Nora: “Or in a country like Spain.”
LaPook: “I’m just saying. It’s already out of control in Africa, okay, and you worry about it coming to other countries and I think, yeah, that’s the worst case scenario if you’re really asking that but I do not think it is at all likely and neither does any expert because we know we do know how to control it. We know how to stop it in its tracks.”
Charlie: “And all of the health care officials are communicating that very clearly.”
LaPook: “Yes we have to learn how to do these protocols better.”
You can view video of the exchange here. #####
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