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Reporter shares lessons learned about questioning conventional wisdom Date: 02/06/15

Elise Oberliesen
Elise Oberliesen

By Mary Otto

"The decision to remove wisdom teeth often seems like a routine part of young adulthood. But more people are starting to ask whether it's always necessary," Elise Oberliesen told readers of the Los Angeles Times in a recent story.

"Those who oppose automatically taking out those four teeth say "watchful waiting" is a better path because the teeth and surrounding gum tissue might remain normal, making costly surgery unnecessary," she wrote.

In the article, Thomas B. Dodson, D.M.D., M.P.H., a professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Washington stressed the potential risks of keeping wisdom teeth, including gum infections and the possible need for emergency surgery.

Meanwhile, others emphasized the advisability of holding onto healthy third molars.

"If the tooth is not diseased, leave it in," advised Richard Niederman, chairman of the department of epidemiology and health promotion and director of the Center for Evidence-Based Dentistry at New York University.

In her reporting Oberliesen sought out numerous experts and combed through peer-reviewed research and insurance data. The resulting story provided an in-depth look at an important question young people and their parents routinely face.

In this Q&A, Oberliesen offers some insights into how she tackled this project. She also shares advice on navigating the twists and turns of a complex story.

Q: What got you started on this idea?

A: The story idea started out as a reader tip in which someone called into question the routine practice of removing non-diseased wisdom teeth. The reader essentially asked us to examine the status quo and help generate more dialogue on a topic he felt was not getting adequate attention.

Q: How did you develop the story?

A: I buried my nose in the science — mountains of research both medical and dental. I tried to see this story from a world viewpoint because it appeared that other countries were taking a different approach. I wondered why, and whether we could learn something from the international community.  I turned to research conducted in Europe, Canada, Australia, even studies of studies, and The World Health Organization. I talked to various dental associations, insurance company officials, public health officials and the dental professionals themselves. All of those sources and the endless research helped the story take shape.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced along the way?

A: At first, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out a new way to tell this story. It wasn’t a new idea. Since other reporters had written about the topic, my editor pushed me to find new and compelling information that hadn’t been covered.

Finding the right sources who could or would share compelling information wasn’t easy. Some people didn’t want to go on record, yet wanted to share their opinions and ideas. At the end of the day, if sources won’t go on record, you can’t finish writing the story. However, I always listened to what those sources had to say. Even the most silent source can point you in a direction and help you identify other sources that fill in the gaps.

Q Can you offer us some wisdom you gleaned from this experience?

A: When you’re reporting on a complex topic, realize that sometimes you can’t rush the process. This story tested my patience time and again. Ask questions and keep asking questions — especially when the answers don’t line up or people cannot answer the infamous “why” question. Don’t be afraid to question the science. Always try to communicate with your editor — especially if you uncover elements of surprise or suspicion. A good editor will steer you out of the weeds. Best advice — always trust your gut instincts.

As an independent journalist, Elise Oberliesen (@eliseannetteprimarily writes features for newspapers, magazines and trade journals. Over the past 12 years, she's covered health and wellness, health care policy and business.