Media Watch

Waiting on the News

Patients needing organ transplants often see the media as their last resort.

by Lauren Mutter

f you had a chance to help save a person’s life, would you take that chance?”

Gloria Kelly went straight for the heart when she pitched her story to the Flyer and more than 75 other local media outlets. Her husband Michael is suffering from late-stage leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. A search of the National Donor Marrow Program [N.D.M.P.] resulted in eight potential donors, a near-miracle in a search that often ends with none.

Michael Kelly: one of at least 53,000 patients now waiting for an organ transplant.

Tests have narrowed the donor pool to five, bringing the transplant closer – as close as eight weeks. The Kellys’ insurance, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, will not pay for pre-transplant testing to single out the donor, nor will it cover living costs the Kellys will incur in their four-to-seven-month stay in Seattle, where Michael will undergo the transplant at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Gloria approached the media for help after reading the ABCs of Fund-raising, a book she received from the patient advocacy group of the N.D.M.P.

The Kellys are by no means alone. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are now at least 53,000 patients waiting for a transplant. At least 10 people die every day while waiting for an organ. Though not all of these people appeal to the media, enough do to leave editors and producers wondering which stories to cover and which to ignore.

Henry Stokes, managing editor of The Commercial Appeal, says he doesn’t differentiate between transplant stories and other news. “Judging news is trying to understand circumstances,” he says. “We have to make those judgments on time, space, and our primary consideration: Do people want or need to know this story?”

Though these stories are often heart-wrenching for the individuals’ families, most newspapers don’t cater to personal heartache.

As a paper serving the metro Memphis area, Stokes says, The Commercial Appeal would rarely give a transplant story more than a snippet in the Neighbors section. There, they print a note about how people can contact the family and where they can make donations – even then, only if there is a bank account designated for the sole purpose of funding transplant expenses.

The Kellys have sent three letters to the C.A. since late December. While they all discussed Michael’s illness, the letters highlighted instead the overwhelming response the Kellys have received from churches, State Tech (where Michael has been employed for the last 13 years), and various individuals. This open-arms response, Gloria says, is worthy of coverage, even if Michael’s story isn’t.

Stokes did not recognize the Kellys’ name or their situation. The Commercial Appeal has not published anything about the Kellys, nor does Stokes expect that it will.

About eight years ago, the C.A. did run story about a child in need of a rare type of transplant. The family asked for financial assistance, setting up collections through banks, post-office boxes, and churches. Their efforts were successful. After the story appeared, Stokes says, “It became clear to us – not that they were being fraudulent – that the family’s circumstances were not so bad.” Since then, the paper has run “only a handful” of such stories, according to Stokes.

Make that a handful plus one. Last weekend, in its Sunday Appeal section, the C.A. ran a full spread on a heart transplant story, a far cry from a two-sentence notice in the Neighbors section. Assistant managing editor for features Leanne Kleinmann was not available to discuss the story.

Jeff Alan, news director at Channel 24, says that space considerations as well as determining whether the family in need is being totally honest both come into play. “We take everything on an individual-case basis,” he says.

Alan is much more enthusiastic about transplant stories than his print counterparts. For him, these “real people with real stories” are news. “Human-interest stories are the best things we can do,” he says.

He hadn’t seen the Kellys’ request, but he was definitely interested. “This story sounds perfect for us,” Alan says excitedly, and then asks for the Kellys’ phone number. The station is sending a reporter to talk with Gloria this week.

In his recently published book Reporting on Risks, University of Memphis journalism professor Jim Willis cites an article about organ transplants in which the author observes, “To get that coverage, it helps to be a cute child.”

Or a celebrity. Mickey Mantle’s liver transplant got extensive coverage, Stokes says, “because here was somebody we knew as a nation. What they do is news because people want to know about it.”

In smaller community papers, residents take on the same celebrity status that Mantle had in the national media. Ron Caldwell of The Collierville Herald says that they frequently publish public-service appeals and that Kellys’ plight “would be a front-page story if they were from Collierville.”

The Herald did publish a small story about the Kellys, who live about 15 minutes from Collierville. Ten other local media outlets, one from Birmingham, Alabama, and a few from Kentucky, where Michael’s family lives, ran the story as well.

The Kellys are still waiting on The Commercial Appeal. “I was really hoping they’d put Michael’s story in there,” Gloria says, but “they probably get millions of these [letters].” In reality, Stokes says, they get only a few.

After reading the C.A.’s recent transplant story, Gloria says, “I’m really baffled. I think they could do it if they wanted to.”

Perhaps. “You’ve got to look at the story,” Stokes says. “If there’s something here for me to learn, then it’s worthy of storyhood.” n

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