Reporter examines ethics of interviewing patients

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

After joining a panel on media, ethics and trauma at the Anxiety Disorders Association of America’s annual conference, New Orleans Times Picayune reporter John Pope found himself questioning the sourcing practices he’d developed and followed during almost 20 years on the health beat.

As he writes for the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, he had no idea of the legion of ethical dilemmas each time he, like countless other health journalists around the country, simply called a specialist in a relevant field and asked for help finding patients who would be willing to talk.

At the panel, Pope suddenly found himself confronted with the questions his innocent requests were raising on the other end of the line. I’ve reproduced his list below, as it’s pretty thought-provoking material.

  • Would a therapist be exerting undue influence by asking a patient to speak to a reporter?
  • Would the patient feel obligated to comply as a condition of treatment?
  • If the therapist were present during the interview, would that inhibit the patient?
  • If the therapist weren’t present, would the patient exaggerate to help the reporter get a terrific story?
  • Would talking to a reporter reopen psychic wounds if no professional were on hand to guide the conversation?

They are questions that defy easy answers. Many physicians assembled even said that they viewed allowing a patient to speak to a reporter as “unethical in all circumstances.” Nevertheless, a few folks provided suggestions such as posting solicitations for sources in waiting rooms, thus allowing reporters to bypass the doctor-patient relationship, or perhaps asking physicians to maintain source lists of willing and qualified patients.

Neither seems practical or satisfactory on deadline, and in the end their may really be no solution other than Pope’s own, that physicians and reporters form long-term relationships and build the sort of trust necessary in delicate situations.

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