Sara Jane Baker
In the interview at her home, the patient seems anxious but composed — like so many women in similar circumstances. But there’s a difference here: Chrissy is eight years old. Wise beyond her years, she looks into the camera and talks about her illness. “I hope I can fight it off,” she says. I challenge anyone to watch this story with dry eyes.
As a person who once pursued a career in TV journalism, I can tell you TV news has no peer when it comes making us feel empathy. The results are generally less spectacular when the subject is difficult-to-fathom medical science. But I believe there’s a solution. What if TV news shows could borrow some of the tricks and tools Hollywood uses to make these challenging elements more appealing? By doing this, the shows would elevate our national conversation about science and boost viewer engagement.
One example that recently caught my eye was a scene in the Oscar-nominated film “The Big Short.” Actress Margot Robbie sits in a bubble bath, glass of champagne in hand, and explains the complexities of mortgage-backed securities. Okay, she isn’t talking about engineering chimeric antigen receptor T cells to attack cancer. But the topic is equally wonky, and the scene succeeds in bringing viewers pleasurably up to speed.
Robbie’s cameo and the way it’s presented — she breaches the “fourth wall” and talks directly to the audience — turns out to be a perfect device, both for drama and pedagogy. Could TV news shows pull this off? If they packaged the segment with humor and panache, I don’t see why not.
In fact, to communicate hard science, TV news could incorporate almost all the ingredients Hollywood uses to cook up its amazing confections. I don’t think TV audiences would balk at the use of movie stars. We already have a soft spot for celebrities who are authentic and passionate disease advocates, such as Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s disease) and Angelina Jolie (BRCA gene mutations and cancer). More and more of them are also showing up in television commercials. Disease advocacy and product pitches are just two of the many roles these talented individuals can play.
Every film buff and self-identifying nerd can conjure up a movie scene where science shines through. Maybe it’s the rebellion of HAL (the Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer) in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or one of the pitch-perfect re-enactments in “Apollo 13” or “A Beautiful Mind.” Then, there is the classic genetics tutorial in Stephen Spielberg’s first “Jurassic Park” movie when scientists played by Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum watch an animated film within the film.
Narrated by Mr. DNA, this animation explains how creatures that have been extinct for million of years can be cloned from DNA in traces of blood from mosquitoes trapped in ancient amber. This clip could be used today in a class on cloning — and it probably is.
My point is, cloning is an important medical technology, laid out in an amusing, edifying way by masters of the craft in Jurassic Park. Maybe, royalties permitting, Mr. DNA could help a newscaster explain this science the next time cloning or de-extinction is in the headlines.
The actor who blazed trails in this type of exposition is Alan Alda. For more than a decade, he played Chief Surgeon Hawkeye Pierce on CBS’s TV show “M*A*S*H,” then spent 12 years as host of the science-themed TV show “Scientific American Frontiers.”
After that, Alda helped create the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The program taught scientists — what else? — how to think like actors.
If Alda is willing to work so hard on behalf of science communications, sometimes on a volunteer or “not for much profit” basis, maybe other gifted actors might do the same. Maybe broadcast news could enlist movie stars in the not-yet-invented role of Master Explainer for complex medical developments.
The candidates that spring to mind are known for very different roles. And I confess, I haven’t asked any of them what they think (though if I get the chance to walk the next red carpet, I’ll be sure to bring it up!) Here are a few whose science or math proclivities have been well documented in the celebrity press:
Natalie Portman: BA from Harvard, two papers published in science journals.
James Franco: math nerd, one-time intern at Lockheed Martin, now pursuing a PhD in English at Yale.
Mayim Bialik: neuroscience doctoral work at UCLA before playing a neurobiologist on “Blossom” and science nerd on “The Big Bang Theory.”
But what, exactly, would we be asking these celebrities to do? Without any exact precedents in TV health news, it’s hard to know what the newfangled broadcast segments would be, but we have some idea what they would look like. Think of your favorite science scenes in movies “The Martian,” “Interstellar” or “The Imitation Game.” All it really takes is good writing, good material, and star power.
It’s true that individuals on our A-list don’t work for peanuts, and struggling TV news programs don’t have Hollywood-style budgets. But money isn’t the only thing actors think about. Many have earned plenty, and some are admirable philanthropists who understand the idea of mission. If they’re looking to give something back to society, moonlighting as science ambassadors for modest fees may fit the bill.
There is one other caveat: actors, unlike professional journalists, have no training in how to avoid biased reporting, conflicts of interest, breaches of privacy or plagiarism. Learning about these pitfalls isn’t brain surgery. And, come to think of it, brain surgery is something our versatile movie stars probably could have pursued while studying at Harvard, Yale or UCLA.
Plenty of professionals find their voices as journalists when the opportunity arises. Harvard professor and surgeon Atul Gawande writes for The New Yorker, and economist Paul Krugman has a column in the New York Times. If these individuals can do it, why not the most brilliant actors of our day? With help from Hollywood, broadcasters could continue to tell moving stories about patients and the science would be equally thrilling.
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Sara Jane Baker is Senior Manager of Media Relations at Chamberlain Healthcare PR, part of inVentiv Health.