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How'd the press handle
the KS virus story?

Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center biomedical researchers reported a major AIDS finding late last year. Molecular biologist Yuan Chang, M.D., and her husband, epidemiologist Patrick S. Moore, M.D., used new methods for sorting and amplifying gene fragments. They came up with a previously unknown herpesvirus that they thought, and now have shown, causes Kaposi's sarcoma (KS).

Discoveries on this fundamental level usually lead to further discoveries--about how the mass media respond to research stories. Many an investigator has found his or her work distorted, exaggerated, or ignored when interpreted by the commercial press. Drs. Chang and Moore, however, found that sensationalism isn't always inevitable.

KS, the purple cancerous eruption that spreads disfiguringly over many male homosexual AIDS patients, is rare among patients infected by blood transfusions or dirty needles. This persuaded many researchers that KS is a sexually transmitted viral illness. But the virus had not been found.

The Columbia researchers and their collaborators successfully isolated the unusual DNA sequences in KS tissue from AIDS patients. But these sequences were rare in other tissues from the same patients and absent in people without KS. Comparing the sequences with DNA from known viruses suggested that they came from a previously unknown herpesvirus.

Chang and Moore submitted a research report to Science. As the Dec. 16 publication date approached, the Columbia Health Sciences public relations department prepared a long, detailed news release about the research findings and scheduled a press conference, contacting reporters known to have an interest in scientific and medical topics.

Chang and her team reported at later scientific meetings and in subsequent publications that the DNA sequences were found in all subtype Kaposi's sarcoma and extensive sequencing of the organism was performed. This bolstered their original findings. But since they had not yet reported these confirmatory results to colleagues, they could not tell reporters in December that (1) they had definitely found a new virus or (2) that it causes KS. The rules of the research game are that they could go no further in their press conference with reporters than the findings in the Science paper.

Says Elaine Metcalf, public relations director for Columbia Health Sciences, "It's difficult to draw reporters' attention to a basic science finding, even if it is a good story." However, top science reporters did pick up on the discovery. The New York Times' Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., a physician and infectious disease specialist, came and took copious notes, Chang and Moore recall.

"Altman was very good," Moore said. "He tried to get us to say it was a virus and it was the cause." "We couldn't!" added Chang.

Altman hedged the discovery as an "apparent newly detected virus." The headline on his Page 1 story (Dec. 16) had three hedges: "Apparent [1] Virus May [2] Be a [3] Cause [of KS]". Newsday's Laurie Garrett, author of a recent book on emerging new infectious diseases, wrote a story that was hedged twice in the headline: "Herpes Virus May [1] Lurk [2] in Kaposi's." The Wall Street Journal's senior science writer, Jerry E. Bishop, hedged less: "Unknown Virus Is Tied [to KS]," the headline said.

Despite these slight differences in treatment, Chang and Moore said recently, most print coverage was highly accurate, although one newspaper in the West called the discovery a new AIDS virus, which, of course, it is not.

"They asked good questions," Chang said. "It was pretty appropriate," Moore added. "I thought it was fairly well done." The two scientists were less pleased with the TV coverage, however.

Most TV reporters didn't say very much about the discovery, Moore said, although one national reporter was extremely knowledgeable and had a thorough understanding of the topic. Added Chang: "They were trying to pressure us to say certain things in certain ways. I guess it can't be helped. But I don't know if you can give a synopsis of everything in two sound bites."

Having material prepared for reporters helped keep the story on track, the two scientists said. They also rehearsed in advance with a colleague, who asked them questions that could be expected and helped them shape their answers. This preparation, they said, was the key to shaping the coverage.

"We were very, very careful," Chang recalled. "There were a number of issues that we knew were going to be asked. For example, we were concerned that people would think there's going to be an `outbreak.'" "So," Moore added, "we wanted to say to the reporters that if this is a virus, there is no evidence it is easily transmissible."

How can other researchers meet the press with comparably felicitous results? Moore summed it up this way: "It's helpful to go through the types of questions you're going to be asked beforehand with a trusted colleague. And it's helpful to be very clear [in your own mind] about what you're going to say."

-- David R. Zimmerman

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