NASW Professional Development SessionPlatform: Zoom WebinarVideo
Patients can make for complicated sources. Theirs are some of the most important and compelling stories in biomedicine—and they’re the foremost experts in their own experience. But memories can be fickle, and patients’ narratives don’t always jibe with the facts as clinicians or scientists see them. How do you ethically and respectfully report out those discrepancies?
The question is trickier than it might sound. Our job as science writers is to tell stories that clearly lay out what’s fact, what’s not, and what remains uncertain. But to ask patients to corroborate a sensitive story can sometimes sound dismissive, as if the journalist doesn’t take their experience seriously. Not only can that harm a relationship of trust; it can also entrench a sense that those with power—doctors, scientists, journalists—don’t believe them, potentially deepening their suspicion of reporters and experts alike, and sparking a sense of betrayal in those who’ve made themselves vulnerable by sharing their stories.
That all sounds very abstract. We want to hear the concrete ways journalists have handled this issue. There are countless stories of people—many of them from marginalized groups—being treated dismissively in medical settings, even when it comes to diagnoses that turn out to be uncontroversial. How do you ask those sources for documents without taking part in that pattern of dismissal or disbelief? How do you bring up conflicts between different eyewitness accounts so that you’re getting the facts right without invalidating someone’s experience? And how do you tell the story of someone with a delusional disorder, who’s adamant that they don’t have a mental illness and that what others call hallucinations are real?
While biomedical reporting is our entry point, these questions have implications for anyone writing about unsettled science and how it affects people’s lives.