Archive for April 25th, 2008

NBC News and Lasik surgery–an egregious example

April 25, 2008

We now take it as commonplace to see the kind of coverage that NBC News provided about lasik eye surgery. I think Brian Williams is the class act on network news and they have done a stellar job of set design, integration with, etc. But their coverage of lasik surgery is a great example of what is wrong with news today.

Here is the video of the report.

It starts with the teaser-which suggested (I am recalling from viewing the original report a couple of days ago) that there was new information about the dangers of lasik surgery. Get attention? As Williams suggested in this opening lines–this will be of high interest to those who got surgery or who are contemplating it.

What was the news? The FDA is holding hearings. That was the only news. But, what was the message conveyed? The lasik eye surgery is a highly risky procedure with potentially disabling side effects. What was the evidence? The sad experience of one young man. I want to take nothing away from the misery endured by this man who suffers from extreme dry eyes, apparently from his surgery.  But the story mentioned that 12.4 million people have had this surgery, that 700,000 people get it every year, and showed one doctor in the report that indicated he turns away a number of patients because they are not good candidates.

The reporter and NBC News will say in defense that see, they reported all the “good stuff,” but the truth is the way the story was set up by the teaser, the tone of it, and the singular focus on one pitiful case of surgery gone sideways left a clear and indelible message that this is something highly dangerous, under-regulated, with millions taking undue risks because doctors are hiding the risks. If anyone who watched it didn’t get that message let me know.

I have some sensitivity to the issue because a few years ago one of my clients had one of the largest and most successful lasik surgery clinics in North America. He was driven out of business by a huge jump in insurance premiums based on a class action lawsuit. The enterprising attorney was attempting to assemble a class for action, and got on Good Morning America–with a couple of patients (sisters I believe) who had surgery and complained about their problems. The truth was, they refused to come in for secondary treatment which is relatively common. They wanted the problem and didn’t want it to go away and the attorney wanted to assemble a class. Good Morning America was more than willing to comply. We offered to come on the show with them–they denied us the opportunity and gave us 15 minutes to offer a written statement. Which we did and they waved at the camera during the completely bogus report.

As a result of this combination of legal entrepreneurship with media ratings hunting, the lasik clinic with likely the highest safety and performance rating at that time had to be shut down.

It is common for the public to buy into the media’s own messiah-complex that they are operating for the public good–in this case trying to save innocent people from the horrors experienced by the gentleman pictured. But, they can and frequently do untold damage by these kinds of reports as well. Innocent people get hurt by bad surgery, and innocent people get hurt by audience-greedy journalists as well.