In early January, Hamilton Nolan at Gawker published a piece titled "Journalism is Not Narcissism", in which he deplored the current fad for first-person in journalistic story telling. His argument is that this is often a lazy way to tell a story and one that often ends up being writer rather than subject focused: "At their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience. Mostly, they offer run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction."
This led Gary Schwitzer at Health News Review last week to ponder the same trajectory in health and medical reporting. "Why am I writing about this on a site that focuses on health care journalism?" he asked. "Because we see many stories by health care journalists reporting about themselves. They are often imbalanced, incomplete, non-evidence-based stories. Is this narcissism?"
Schwitzer's January 9 post then offered up a slightly depressing list of health stories that did indeed seem to fit that category. Most, but not all of them, involving television reporting, such as ABC's Bill Weir's glowing enthusiasm after undergoing a full-body CT scan (life saving!) which suggested that he might have some calcium build up in his heart. As Schwitzer noted earlier, Weir did not address the consider medical doubts regarding the value of calcium scanning. Nor, apparently, the growing concerns about radiation exposure related to frequent use of high-intensity CT scans.
And this is fair criticism but as a number of very good medical journalists responded (on Twitter, I noticed responses from both Charles Ornstein, of ProPublica, and long-time medical writer, Mary Knudson), emphasizing that sometimes personal experience inspires a good story. And sometimes it illuminates it. As Knudson pointed out, after she suffered heart failure – and with good medical care also recovered from it – she was inspired to collaborate with her doctor, Ed Kasper, on a carefully researched book, Living Well With Heart Failure.
In the interests of openness, I also wrote to Schwitzer saying that I thought that first-person-or-not was not the key question. Rather that the key question is "what is the best way to tell this story"? He replied that he was also looking at the ways that a writer's personal experience improved a story. The resulting post, published on July 15, cites both Knudson's book and compulsively readable piece by Ornstein about the intricaties of Medicare, written when he was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times some years ago. It begins:
"My mother turned 65 this summer, an event Medicare marketers ensured she would not overlook. In the months before her birthday, slick brochures flooded her mailbox, touting Medicare health plans whose names alone promised virtues such as choice, value and advantage.
Choosing a good plan was important. My mother, Harriet, suffers from Parkinson's disease and other ailments and takes more than a dozen medications every day."
It also cites a number of other outstanding examples of health journalism derived from personal experience. I highly recommend reading both of Schwitzer's posts. They're almost a cheat-sheet look at both the times when such stories are done without any notable integrity – and the times that they shine. And it's in understanding and being aware of both possibilities that the rest of us also learn to get it right.
— Deborah Blum