ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser Shares Insight on Amplifying Public Health Messages

Interview by Ian Goldstein, Web Specialist, NACCHO

besserDr. Richard Besser is Chief Health and Medical Editor for ABC News providing medical analysis and commentary for all ABC News broadcasts and platforms, including World News with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, and Nightline. Dr. Besser joined ABC in 2009 after serving as the Director of the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The following is an excerpt from a recent NACCHO podcast.

NACCHO: Having worked in public health both at the CDC and now as Chief Health and Medical Editor at ABC News, how has working as a physician in governmental public health lent perspective to your current role?

Dr. Besser: When I was thinking about what to do after leaving CDC and ways to have an impact in public health, it struck me that communication is one of those areas that has been underutilized by public health as a way of informing the public and, more importantly, working to change behavior. Through my work at ABC, I’m trying to use general media as a way to get public health messages out.

NACCHO: Can you tell us about specific challenges you’ve faced that have influenced your perspective on the role of media in covering similar challenges?

Dr. Besser: The big one for me was the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. During that period, I was the acting director of CDC and one of our strategies in responding to the pandemic was that communication was going to be central. We wanted the American public to get their information from us. We were going to have the latest information about the pandemic—where it was going, how severe it was—but more importantly, we were going to have information that people could use to protect their health. So we said from day one that any media outlet that wanted to speak with us, we were going to provide someone right away for them to speak with. We were going to have daily scheduled press briefings and we were going to answer all of the questions that came from the media.

What we found through polling is that during that period in 2009, the public’s trust in government was higher than people had seen for any other crisis and people’s willingness to do things to protect their health was rising. It solidified for me the value of media in amplifying the public health message.

To hear more, listen to the podcast at www.naccho.org/podcasts. For tools to help you amplify your message, visit NACCHO’s Communications Toolkit.

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