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Snap judgements are natural, but how do you keep an open mind as you report a big health story?

Snap judgements are natural, but how do you keep an open mind as you report a big health story?

Picture of William Heisel

We all know reporters who are holier than thou.

They talk as if they have a special knowledge only a few can learn and as if they have taken a vow that  few can adhere to. The vow of objectivity.

Most reporters, though, after a few years of reporting, realize that the human mind simply cannot remain 100% objective at all times. We are creatures that over millions of years of evolution have developed a very keen sense of subjectivity. That discernment, the ability to make snap judgments and to generate informed opinions over time, has allowed us to survive and thrive. That stranger had a menacing look as he passed. If we share this feast we’ll build goodwill and gain protection.

The hard-wired ability to quickly make sense out of disparate facts and impressions can be the initial skill that allows you to become a great reporter. I remember covering a shooting that happened in a hospital, jotting down my thoughts as quickly as I could and filing the story by phone. You may already be in the habit of posting some of your work live in real time on social media. You need the ability to make mental leaps that knit together a narrative.

In an investigation, you have the chance to slow the reporting down and to take much longer with your composition of the story. But does more time allow you to shift entirely from the subjective to something resembling pure objectivity?   

I don’t believe so.

One of the earliest and best tips I received as a starting journalist was to start writing the story after my first interview. The journalist was a veteran reporter and newspaper editor who talked about leaving an interview, running to his car and writing his lead on a piece of paper so he wouldn’t forget it. Then, on the way back to the office, he would dictate into a recorder the way the rest of the story should go.

It’s a great technique that I practiced many, many times.

Of course, any story – especially an investigative story – has to grow and evolve and maybe even take a totally different direction at some point, but that early straight-from-your-gut structure can provide the impetus you need to get the piece moving. It prevents you from fussing so long that you lose the sense of why you started down that path in the first place.

Let’s take the example from my last post. You’ve heard through an anonymous email that there has been a series of hospital-acquired infections at a local hospital that have not been reported to state or federal regulators. If you were going to be purely objective, you would somehow figure out which people you needed to interview. Doctors, nurses, and others inside the hospital. Experts in infections. Patients. The families of patients. Regulators. You would talk to all of them in self-imposed intellectual silos, trying to keep out of your head what any of the rest of them had said about the topic or about each other. And then you would carefully sort through all the facts you had gathered to decide on what objective truths you would then reveal to your audience. (Or, if you subscribed to a more Nietzschean view, you would amass as many of those perspectives together as possible and only consider “truth” as residing somewhere in that totality of perspectives.)

That is not only impractical, but it is a fantasy.

You absolutely start forming judgments in your head based on the people you talk to, the documents you read, and the places you visit first. You use those judgments to hone your reporting, so that you can answer a compelling question for your audience, often a question that is timely in nature. If you tried to keep judgments out of your head, you would never finish your story because you would be hard-pressed to ever draw a firm conclusion. In the case of the hospital infection story, you are starting with an anonymous tip. You have to lend credence to the basic premise of that tip to decide to even pursue the story. And perhaps during the course of your reporting you decide that one doctor is to blame for covering up the disease outbreak. You likely won’t know definitively that this is the case, but you need to make connections in order to find out whether your hunch is true.

The key is to check your biases. And recheck them throughout your reporting. Is there something other than the facts you are finding that is driving you in this particular health investigation?

Do you simply not like the person or people who are your subject? (Maybe that doctor was rude to you when you tracked him down outside the hospital. That’s not a good reason in itself to pursue your hunch as it if were true.)

Did you have a personal experience that you want to make sure is never repeated? (Potentially a good reason, but you better disclose to your audience that your personal experience is part of the mix.)

Are you trying to win an award, get a promotion, or make your friends and family proud? (All good motivators but don’t let ambition get the best of your sense of duty to the facts and your audience.)

Then, when you first start writing, ask yourself two things: What is the central question you are trying to answer? And why do you think that is the most important question here?

The first question is often simple to answer. It’s the thing that motivated you to start your reporting in the first place. In our example, the question was given to you by the anonymous tip: Did the hospital cover up a disease outbreak that potentially still poses a threat to patients?

But the second one can be difficult to answer. It may require you to write down exactly what you think you know and why. If you do that, you might find that you’ve missed a step in your reporting — or your interpretation of your reporting. You may be relying too heavily on a small group of sources who have an agenda that they are trying to advance through you. You may be relying too heavily on an anonymous string of emails. You may have a great document trail that seems to tell a perfect story, but there may be contravening or at least mitigating evidence out there that you have failed to consider. If you start to test the logic of your story in even a rudimentary way, you might find that it falls apart.

Think of it as trying to take an objective lens on your subjective story. You don’t want to ignore all those precious judgments you have used to build a jewel of a story. But you also don’t want to sell your audience fool’s gold.

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