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