Dental News

DENTISTRY AND THE MEDIA: Are Journalists Out to Get the Profession?

By Chris Smith

Jan 07,2000   – It seems to be a cycle now. The American Dental Association gets a call from a producer at one of the network newsmagazines who is looking for the association’s stance on a particular issue.

The issue in question always is a controversial one. Through the years, the networks have investigated the safety of dental handpieces, the possible transmission of HIV in the dental office by Dr. David Acer, the administration of anesthesia by dentists that result in death, and the famous “60 Minutes” segment on amalgam involving what many dentists believe was a flawed study on sheep.

Though the “60 Minutes” piece was aired more than a decade ago, it frequently draws the most ire from dentists, perhaps because it is considered to be the first to criticize the dental profession in a very public forum. Not only was it a jolt to the profession, but it and the newsmagazine stories that followed left such a bad taste in the mouths of dentists that man in the profession began to ask, “Is the media out to get us.”

“Absolutely not,” notes Marvin Berman, a pediatric dentist who is well-known on the lecture circuit. He sat next to Kimberly Bergalis on the Oprah Show where he defended the profession regarding mandatory HIV testing of health care professionals. “Most news about dentistry is overwhelmingly positive. Only a small portion is negative.”

Unfortunately, he says, the negative stories tend to make a “bigger splash,” appearing on television shows such as the news magazines that tend to traffic in that type of news and information in order to appeal to viewers and maintain ratings, which in turn boosts advertising. Plus there is simply more media, he says, and everyone is looking for a good scoop.

“Dentistry seems to attract more and more attention, and during the 1990s, there seemed to be many more stories on dentistry and new dental technology, especially cosmetics,” he says. “Not every story can be positive. Not everything about the profession is rosy.”

Chris Martin, a former spokesperson for the American Dental Association who now works in the same capacity at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, agrees that more stories focus on dentistry. “Dentistry is part of healthcare and journalists are covering health care much better and much more thoroughly,” he says. “I think the media’s focus is mirrored by the economy has gone. We are in a good economy and so we are seeing more stories on cosmetics. It doesn’t necessarily matter that most cosmetics are a discretionary expense and not covered by insurance. But these stories have been very good for the profession because they are getting people into the dental office.”

Dentists, he says, are distrustful of the media – an idea that many other professions also have experienced but have been able to discard.

“Dentists tend to be very insular and very inward looking,” Martin says. “Dentists tend to look at themselves instead of their publics. They tend to think in terms of ‘we are dentists and we do things for a reason’, but they sometimes fail to articulate those reasons.”

There clearly is an “us-against-them” mentality among dentists, says Jeff Dalin, DDS, a general dentist who practices in St. Louis.

“Dentists do not understand the media and how it operates,” he says. “We are trained as dental clinicians. Dealing with the media is a science in itself. If you do not know what you are doing, you can be made to look very bad and comments you make can be used to make our entire profession look bad. I used to appear on a radio talk show and was media spokesperson for our local dental society for a number of years without any formal training. I thought I was handling things well and had a good handle on how to do that job. The ADA then began giving media relations training sessions. These courses are extremely useful. They gave me insight on the media and have helped me in my dealings with the media. I always recommend that dentists be trained in how to deal with the media before they try talking with them.”

He believes that “only” media trained dentists should work with journalists. “Negative stories will appear no matter what we try to do to avoid them,” says Dr. Dalin. “The best thing we can do is have trained people out there ready to handle the tough questions. If know how to handle the media, negative stories can be turned around to become more positive ones.”

However, when negative stories do occur, has only to look as far as some of its own members. For example, during the month of October 1993, the following stories occurred in American newspapers:

  • The Louisville Courier ran two lengthy stories about a dentist on trial for perjury. The dentist allegedly altered a patient’s records, then denied he did it under oath.
  • The Hartford Courant ran a 10-inch story about a doctor on trial for unsanitary health practices such as not wearing protective gloves, overcharging patients and being mentally unstable.
  • The Denver Post ran a front-page story about a dentist who pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in the drug overdose death of a patient.
  • Numerous papers throughout the country ran stories announcing that the U.S. Justice Department charged two dentists—one from Houston, one from New York—with refusing to treat patients infected with HIV.
  • In the Midwest, John S. Lock, DDS, made the news on numerous occasions after he was arrested and jailed for failure to pay child support of $164,000. The Michigan dentist was driving back to his home state when he was stopped in Chicago for a traffic violation. Dr. Lock spent several weeks in jail because the judge did not believe he was cooperating in revealing his assets. But jail cells were nothing new for Dr. Lock. He’d been behind bars on five other occasions for not paying child support since he and his wife divorced in 1973.

Whether dentists like it or not, the public has higher expectations for them. Dentists are, after all, doctors, and generally are held in higher esteem because of their status, education and even income. When they misbehave, it’s news.

The key, says retired dentist David Light, DMD, of Kingston, PA, is not to over-react when negative news occurs.

“We are emotional in nature but in reality no one other than us really cares when the media delivers a negative story,” he says. “The patients don’t care past the first week and the industry as a whole does not suffer but we do get very wrapped up in it.”

Dr. Light says that patients know better; that they are skeptical of the press. “Patients know that the media is a sensationalism-based profession,” he contends. “They know that pain sells, whether it is in the dental office, a fire, earthquake, storm or murder. Pain sells.”

Negative news, however, provides an excellent opportunity for dentists, says Gus Gates, DDS, a general dentist who practices in Temple, TX. He serves as the Public Information chair for the Academy of General Dentistry.

“The average dentist tries to do his or her best for the patient,” he explains. “Most of us are in a private practice setting and spend time with patients, earning their trust. I believe that it is this hard-earned trust that protects us from the potential fallout of any negative news stories. When a negative story does occur, it is unfortunate but it is an excellent time to increase dentist-patient communication about a procedure. Negative stories may always occur, but dentists can take the opportunity to talk to their patients and encourage them to ask questions.”

Members of the dental community will get that opportunity in the very near future. An upcoming episode of ABC’s television newsmagazine “20/20” will examine waterlines in dental offices, a report similar to the one conducted by CBS Morning News last October.

ABC News producers have contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ADA and the California Dental Association. They have approached dental offices to film footage that shows waterlines. ADA officials fear the story will be sensationalistic and have begun to warn members of the story through its publications and web site.

“Whatever,” sighs Dr. Berman. He’s seen it all before. “We will weather this and we will go on, just like we always have.”

No study shows any definitive data linking dental waterlines to disease incidents, and the ADA opposes legislation that would mandate scientifically unnecessary rules or regulations. Nevertheless, the ADA advocates voluntarily taking steps to eliminate any existing biofilm and prevent any possible new biofilms.

In a 1995 statement, the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs set forth a goal for the year 2000 of less than 200 colony-forming units of bacteria per milliliter of water — and the dental research community and manufacturers have responded to the challenge.

With the new millennium only weeks away, a tally of about 25 products so far have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for use in dental unit waterlines; several additional products are in review. Also, the ADA Seal of Acceptance guidelines now include the 200 CFU goal.

Novel chemical treatments, flash pasteurization, antimicrobials and water turbulence methods are in development. Other methods of bacterial control, such as UV irradiation, ozone treatment and flushing of waterlines have shown some potential.

The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs will continue to analyze research and inform members, and the ADA Health Foundation will continue to fund research efforts toward improving the quality of dental unit water.

As the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs notes in the November 1999 issue of JADA, “pooling of resources and sharing of expertise are essential” between the ADA, Organization for Safety and Asepsis Procedures, and governmental agencies such as the FDA, National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Also see a statement from the CDC on dental unit waterlines.)

The ADA Statement on Dental Waterlines can be viewed on the Web along with an abstract of the JADA article. For more information on dental unit waterline contamination, contact the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs, Ext. 2878.

The news of the waterlines story comes at the same time as a new report critical of the news reporting industry. Results of a survey of local television news coverage are disproving the “if it bleeds, it leads” theory of ratings success.

The study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism ranked the content quality of 59 stations in 19 cities and then compared that to their ratings. The findings: the best-scoring stations were also succeeding with audience share and on the rise in the ratings.

“Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call to local stations who feel obliged to fill their newscasts with stories of crime and violence,” says Patricia Bradley, chair of Temple’s journalism, public relations and advertising department and herself a former broadcast news journalist.

“The study suggests that moving away from the fast-paced, sensational tabloid news format to more in-depth coverage and pro-active, enterprise reporting can actually build viewer loyalty and boost ratings.”

The best television reporting, Bradley notes, was probably in the 1970s when stations were required to serve the community in their news coverage in order to retain their licenses.