Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
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Reporting on controversial scientific and medical topics

June 6, 2014

Tags: reporting on controversial topics

"Medicine, and science generally, has always had controversy, and problems with a public that doesn't understand science," wrote Norman Bauman in an online discussion this week of how to write about something as controversial as persistent Lyme disease without getting crazy reactions from both sides of the controversy. With his permission (and Creative Commons license) we reprint here what he wrote:

"Sex is always controversial. The Clinton Administration fired Joycelyn Elders as Surgeon General because of an accurate statement she made at a conference about sexuality. JAMA fired George Lundberg. CMAJ fired John Hoey.

Illicit drugs are controversial. In the UK, David Nutt was fired from an advisory panel because of his accurate, politically unpopular statements. We still don't have federal funding for needle exchange programs. Federal agencies won't allow objective studies of marijuana.

Guns are controversial. The National Rifle Association stopped the CDC, and every other federal agency, from funding research into firearms.

More generally, you can read Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science, although that title lets the Democrats (like Richard Blumenthal and Bill Clinton) off the hook. It's also unfair to Ronald Reagan, who supported C. Everett Koop. But on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, you can read the loonies first-hand.

A medical researcher complaining about controversy is like a sailor complaining about the sea. It comes with the territory. Didn't you read Microbe Hunters?

It also comes with the territory in journalism. If you want to write about controversies in medicine, the people whose position you debunk will be unhappy.

Some of the patient advocacy groups have adopted a pernicious habit of threatening individual researchers, like Allen Steere, personally. Steer got a lot of publicity, and if he got death threats, I wouldn't blame his institution for hiring a security consultant. After all, the Unibomber did target scientists.

But I don't think the risk filters down to the journalists who are covering the story. Did David Grann, who wrote the NYT Magazine story, get death threats?

I think the risk of angering a crazy activist who will try to kill me because of a controversial story is far less than the risk of getting killed by a truck while crossing the street on the way to the supermarket. I don't worry about risks like that. And I don't think it's professional to cancel a story for that reason.

I think the best way to deal with these controversies, professionally and personally, is to patiently explain the methods of science -- hypothesis and experimental -- and to show how that test applies to the current treatment."

-- from a discussion on the helpful and interesting listserv of the Association of Health Care Journalists