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In health reporting, hard data provides a sound skeletal structure for good anecdotes Date: 03/08/16

By Brian Bienkowski

Pesticide use by farmers linked to high rates of depression, suicides.” This story came about because I saw a federal study release from an ongoing cohort of U.S. farmers and farmworkers linking pesticide exposure to depression.

I dug a little deeper into peer-reviewed research and saw that this particular study was the tip of the iceberg. The association was quite prevalent in the literature.

Writing about mental health is challenging. Writing about suicide is challenging. These are issues that bring up a lot of emotions for the people suffering and for those around them. As part of this story I spoke with a widow whose husband, a farmer, killed himself. Speaking with her was, without question, the most difficult interview I’ve conducted as a journalist.

It was difficult to ask necessary questions (What pesticides did he handle? Were there noticeable mood shifts?, etc…). Whenever someone loses a loved one, especially in that manner, it feels intrusive to prod around. Having said that, her words and story were what made the research come to life.

Any time I write a story like this, sifting through peer-reviewed research plays a major role. Anecdotes aren’t facts. As much as my heart goes out to people who feel chemical exposure has harmed them or loved ones, the fact remains, as a journalist, I still have to verify that their claims are relevant.


Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Flickr.

In this case I relied heavily on PubMed and ToxNet to tease out various animal and human studies about the links between pesticide exposure and mental health.

Such studies are always a bit esoteric, but for each one I would contact one of the authors and have them explain the relevance of the study and how much we could draw from the conclusions. My first question for every researcher is almost always, “What did you do, what did you find, and what does it mean?” (I suppose that’s actually three questions).

I would encourage other reporters to try and strike a balance in human health stories of including those personal anecdotes and narratives that are crucial for storytelling with hard science. Scientific research, reports and quotes from scientists may not be sexy, but it’s what allows good reporters to cut through the clutter and give such pieces a factual backbone.


Brian Bienkowski (@BrianBienkowski) serves as editor of Environmental Health News and its sister site, The Daily Climate. He holds a master’s degree in environmental journalism and a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Michigan State University.