The only question you’ll ever need

August 16, 2009

The danger with journalism today is that it can tend towards the easy win.

Forget asking pesky questions, just show leaping flames on the front page or interview a soot-smeared survivor and ask them how they feel.

How, who, what, where and when are the tenets of this kind of journalism. It’s a necessity in and of itself but I feel it misses the point.

I know why journalism tends towards this kind of easy story – it’s because the newsrooms have been plundered of all but the most junior reporters and an editor (and in some cases even the editor has been made redundant and decisions are made by Others) with nobody in-between. That puts a huge amount of pressure on both ends of the newsroom and leads to the worst kind of newsroom at all: one where reporters are too busy to ask the difficult questions.

Proper journalism, real journalism, my journalism, is about the most important question.

Here’s my One Golden Rule for New Journalists: if you’re ever stuck for something to ask, ask why. Why did the building catch fire? Why were you there? Why weren’t you there? Why did the fire take hold so quickly? Why did the insurance company not pay out? Why why why.

‘Why’ goes to motive. ‘Why’ is the question nobody wants answered; everything else is biography. What happened, when, where did it happen, how. Really these are questions that nobody cares about. ‘Why’ is the question that gets under the skin of any given situation.

And so I must turn my attention to The Listener once more.

Regular readers (hi Mom) will know that I have long since ditched my subscription to what was once New Zealand’s premiere source of investigative journalism. Instead it’s descended into some kind of Alice in Wonderland meets Kafka hell where good stories are lured to their doom. They’re not spiked (a spiked good story lives on) but instead are treated so poorly they because a warped Bizarro World version of what could have been.

This week my wife bought a copy.

The cover story is a revisting of what must surely be one of New Zealand journalism’s finest hours: the Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s piece in Metro magazine from June, 1987. I’d link to the Metro article but in a strange twist of fate, Metro has decided the internet is not for it and has closed its website (Metro is also one of the publications which decided editors are surplus to requirements, although I believe that’s changed lately. But I digress).

You can read the detail for yourself, but as I understand it the story addresses the work of one Dr Herb Green who worked in cystology for the Auckland region from the mid 1950s until 1982 when he retired. He developed a theory that the precursor to cervical cancer, carcinoma in situ (CIS), wasn’t a precursor at all and did not require aggressive treatment. In effect he experimented on his patients by treating them in a way not consistent with his colleagues around the world. In that day and age, patient consent processes were not terribly well evolved and many of his patients had no idea they were being treated as control subjects, and that their cancer was being allowed to spread to prove one doctor’s theory.

Without the work of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, the issue would probably (I suggest) have been handled in-house by the hospital itself with very little external attention. Once they’d written their story, however, a court of inquiry was established and the truth came out. Judge Cartwright determined that the dangers of such conservative treatment should have been obvious as early as 1967. The inquiry lead to a review of medical ethics and to the establishment of the Health and Disabilities Commissioner’s role along with the enshrining of patient consent as part of New Zealand’s law.

This is journalism at its finest, shining a light in the darkest corner, revealing a truth that should not be kept secret, making sure that someone is held accountable and that a wrong is put right.

Twenty years on I would hope that the “Unfortunate Experiment” story is being used as a teaching aid in classrooms around the country and that would-be journalists will use it as an example of what to do in much the same way US journalism students have looked to the story of Watergate for their inspiration.

Instead, I discover that The Listener has devoted its entire cover story to a re-hash of the story and come to the conclusion that there never was any “experiment” and that there was no mis-management of cancer treatment. Oh, and someone’s published a new book about it.

This is the second time in the past month or so I’ve seen a The Listener cover story that’s nothing more than a book review beaten up into journalism. The previous cover was for Nigel Latta’s new book about parenting set to coincide with his TV show about parenting. Oh and the article in question was written by Nigel himself, something that I find quite astonishing.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with The Listener having another look at a story. I think that’s a valid and reasonable approach and one I whole-heartedly support.

What I find astounding is the lurid front cover “Cancer scandal – The truth about the unfortunate experiment. Exclusive – How Sandra Coney, Phillida Bunkle and the Cartwright Inquiry into a doctor’s methods got it WRONG”, and the approach taken by the feature inside (Headline: “Finally, the truth”) which is simply to damn the original story and its participants with little or no new input from the other side. No attempt has been made to interview anyone other than Professor Linda Bryder, author of the new book. We learn what the author thinks of the journalists involved and what the author thinks of the Cartwright Inquiry but at no point do we get any serious attempt to look at what anyone else today thinks of the whole affair.

For that, we turn to Chris Barton in the New Zealand Herald with a five page story that can only be termed a rebuttal.

Chris’s piece, An Unfortunate Rebuttal, interviews the author (albeit only by email), one of the patients, the medical advisor to the Cartwright Inquiry and an expert in medical ethics.

He explores what is clearly a difficult issue (both from an emotional point of view and because of the number of years that have passed since so much of this took place) and manages to piece together a compelling story of a doctor who was all too human working in a system that was all too rigid during a time of change.

This is what The Listener should have done. It’s an actual piece of journalism rather than a book review masquerading as such. It asks awkward questions, it has a balance, it has humanity and compassion and at the end I know more than I did when I went in.

Once again The Listener has let down its readers. I see it’s advertising for a deputy editor. That can’t be all the magazine needs.

EDIT: Oh, oh! Forgot the disclaimer (the dangers of self publishing): I’ve known Chris in a professional capacity for longer than either of us care to remember – probably about ten years by now. Of course, when I knew him he was nothing but a tech reporter. These days he’s quite a bit more than that.

EDIT II: Doctor Who has left the building so I’ve swapped ‘tenant’ for ‘tenet’. Hat tip/grammar check: @nzlemming


10 Responses to “The only question you’ll ever need”

  1. Sara Says:

    In-depth interview on Kim Hill yesterday morning (15 Aug 09) about this.

  2. Karen Says:

    Hi Paul
    Unfortunately … gotta disagree on this one. I was working in women’s health around the time the original article came out and was very supportive of Sandra and Phillida.

    However i chose to buy my own copy of the Listener this week as a result of the article, and found it fascinating checkout line reading. Will be going back to read in further detail. It didn’t feel like shoddy journalism to me, brought to light some information that definitely opened up my perception of the whole affair, clarifying some of the misinterpretations that were put forward in the original story.

    It might not be perfect, and the headlines might be (well ok, they are) somewhat sensational, but I wouldn’t have bothered picking up a copy otherwise.

    The biggest shame is that Dr Green is not alive to step forward and explain what was actually going on.

    And just because this perspective is being put forward in the context of a new book, doesn’t make it any less valid. As you have pointed out, very few journalists are left in this country who have the time or expertise to do their own in-depth research on such specialist topics.



  3. audent Says:

    Hi Karen,

    I don’t have a problem with them revisiting the story – far from it.

    But my point is that the story in The Listener does nothing more than let the author of a new book have her say.

    There’s no effort to see what anyone else involved thinks about the issue – perhaps there’s a groundswell of support for Dr Green’s position? Perhaps the Inquiry put a 1980s point of view on something that happened in the 1950s/1960s?

    We don’t know because the Listener didn’t do its job. Instead, it opted for the lazy journalism approach of taking what’s put in front of them (“Hi, I’ve got a new book to push, want an exclusive?”) and not asking the hard questions.

    That’s why I like Chris Barton’s piece. He talks to several sources and gets a more rounded story out of it. He’s not a specialist medical journo – he’s a feature writer and willing to ask around a subject rather than just accept what’s in front of him.

    I should point out that I don’t know enough about the issue at hand to make a call on whether Cartwright was wrong or not – but I do want to point out the laziness of the Listener’s piece. It’s just not good enough.

    I believe they’re coasting on past glory and that’ll come home to roost and it’s a crying shame because we simply don’t have any other source of strong journalism in New Zealand any more.



    • Kaz Says:

      Hi again Paul

      have read Chris’s article now and yes he does definitely take a broader sweep approach – which is, as you say, undoubtedly better from a journalistic perspective.
      I am very interested to know if there actually was a groundswell of opinion re less invasive treatment for abnormal cells – certainly that appeals to me, as I know a number of women who have reversed their abnormal result through diet and lifestyle changes.
      And of course, there is significant information around about the unreliability of lab tests – some scarily high numbers around that.

      good to have some debate over this … unfortunately i think the quality of journalism overall will only continue to deteriorate.



      • audent Says:

        That’s a very good question – what is the modern response to finding CIS? A friend of mine had cone biopsies done about six years ago – is that the standard these days? I know several people who have managed to control ailments (for want of a better word) through diet/lifestyle changes (and just as many who cry out for more drugs instead). Clearly that’s the easier/safer/”better” way to go if you can.

        As for journalism, it’s definitely undergoing a transition. I would hope it will become stronger for it, but I fear a large number of journalists will be trashed in the process. Meanwhile I see the publishers are about to start hiding behind pay-walls. Great idea, if you don’t want people to read your content.

  4. Martha Says:

    If you get a chance to listen to Kim Hill, I heartily recommend it. I think she was totally won over by the author last week, and gave a very one-sided interview, which yesterday was handsomely rebutted by someone with a great deal more knowledge than the book’s author. It was, over two weeks, what should have been in the article.

    • audent Says:

      I’ll do that. I normally avoid Kim like the plague (much preferred Linda Clark in that kind of setting) but I fear this is the way journalism will be from now on: either one-person interviews or (to my mind it’s just as bad) getting two opposing views and saying “there, that’s balanced”. Brrrr.

  5. Craig Ranapia Says:

    I was seriously underwhelmed by Chris Barton’s lead — I’m sure it really sucks that Claire Matheson (like a lot of people in their 70s) isn’t exactly in the peak of good health. But what the hell does that have to do with the substance of Bryder’s argument, as opposed to frame the issue as a hearless tool of the medical patriarchy beating up on a feisty old lady?

    FFS, could the alleged newspaper of record get over its obsession with reducing every complex public policy issue to an intensely personalised catfight with the goodies and baddies all clearly labelled?

    The most frustrating thing about that lead, for me, is that there’s actually a substantive and interesting story in there. But Barton seemed unable to let that stand, rather than patronising readers with the kind of lead that should be left on the pages of the women’s mags and Sunday tabloids where it belongs.

    • audent Says:

      Oh I didn’t mind it that much. I must say it is a tad over-used but “putting a real face to the issue” is important I think. Makes it more about us instead of them. And compared with the Listener, he was streets ahead.

      But to your point, that’s it exactly. Underneath all of this there’s an important story and it should be told as accurately as possible.

  6. pat Says:

    I think the really big problem facing media outlets in NZ is one of economics.

    Most newspapers and television/radio natworks producing local content are on the metaphorical bones of their arses and as such tend to hire journalisim school grads who are still learning the craft until they work out they can make far more money than the borderline minimum wage usually paid by media organisations simply by getting into PR.

    The other problem is that the market in NZ lacks any real scale and this forces magazines and newspapers to survive on advertising revenues rather than monies sourced from subscriptons. The ultimate effect of this is that most magazines in NZ are more about appeasing advertisers than giving the reader a decent read.

    The sad outcome of all this is that the reader is ultimately purchasing a dumbed down product and are ultimately in danger of becomming dumbed down themselves.

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