Maine journalists wrestle with distinguishing news from promotion in medical crowdfunding

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Troy R. Bennett/BDNWhen Maine resident Christine Royles went to the Internet to pay for a kidney transplant, her crowdfunding campaign also raised ethical concerns for a local newspaper.

Troy R. Bennett/BDNWhen Maine resident Christine Royles went to the Internet to pay for a kidney transplant, her crowdfunding campaign also raised ethical concerns for a local newspaper.

When the health insurance system fails — as it does too often — patients in need frequently turn to crowdfunding to raise cash to cover their medical expenses. Most such requests are so loaded with pathos and emotion that stories about them often end up on Page 1.

But when Jackie Farwell, enterprise editor for the Bangor Daily News, wrote about a young mother from South Portland, Maine, who needed a kidney donation, she also delved into some of the ethical questions involved when media cover crowdfunding campaigns.

In a new “How I Did It,” Farwell writes about the story that prompted her to ask the tough question and how she worked with Anthony Ronzio, BDN’s news and audience director, to seek answers to these questions.

The story began when 24-year-old Christina Royles used a hand-painted notice on the rear window of her car to seek a kidney donor: “Looking for someone to donate me their kidney. Must have type O blood,” she wrote, also providing her phone number.

It’s a good story, right? Possibly a long Sunday feature or even a cover story.

But as Farwell found, there was much more to the story. Medicare would cover the cost of Royles’ surgery, but the prospective donor would be out of work and unpaid for several weeks while recovering. Ethical issues arose after a crowdfunding campaign by a friend of the donor raised almost $50,000 to financially support the donor during the surgery and recovery.

Jackie Farwell

Jackie Farwell

“Numerous media outlets from Maine to the United Kingdom picked up the story, setting a match to the low-tech appeal Royles had spelled out in yellow paint on the back of her Kia Soul,” Farwell wrote.

After the surgery was scheduled at Maine Medical Center, hospital officials began asking whether the surgery was ethical and whether the amount raised through crowdfunding could be construed as illegal organ selling.

In addition, some commenters on BDN’s web site suggested Royles should have waited her turn for a kidney donation because often there can be more than 100,000 patients in the United States awaiting kidney donors. “Others accused her of using her 2-year-old son to garner sympathy,” Farwell reported.

Royles’ story and other articles about medical crowdfunding caused Farwell and Ronzio to ask: What role does media coverage play in these cases? What did BDN readers need to know about medical crowdfunding? How should the paper cover individual crowdfunding campaigns in the future?

As Farwell’s coverage shows, crowdfunding raises ethical questions that set it apart from a church spaghetti supper or a bake sale at a high school. The newspaper is continuing to seek answers, and Farwell welcomes comments and suggestions from other health care journalists.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.