Does stigma begin with me?

Published on
May 10, 2012

At this month's AHCJ convention, blogger Sonya Collins tells us "speaker after speaker reminded us that we medical journalists shouldn't lead with the numbers that quantify the reach of a disease or its cost to taxpayers.  We should lead with the face of someone who lives with that condition. Show our readers that she's just like them." 

She goes on to give a wonderful example of how stigma can be reduced through good storytelling.

But what if the stigma begins in part with journalists?

What happens when journalists shy away from patients, avoid stories about such patients and their diseases because of myths or fail to fact check? Can stigma occur when reporters fail to get myriad sides of a contested story by speaking to multiple sources with different and often varying points of view? What happens when journalists report or chose sources based on what they think they know?

UK journalist Sonia Poulton addresses just this in a Daily Mail article this week. 

She ledes with, "This week is Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Awareness Week or, as it's more accessibly referred to these days: M.E. That may not mean a great deal to you. Certainly, it didn't to me. Oh wait, yes it did.

Based on no personal knowledge whatsoever - fortunately neither I or my loved ones have M.E. - my judgment was gleaned from how the world has portrayed the illness. Like millions of others, I have seen M.E. through the eyes of the medical establishment, the Government and the Media. The picture has not been good."

She then goes on to address a number of what she terms common myths about what is often called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the United States 

Ms. Poulton also references Voices in the Shadows, a documentary which puts a human face on the disease, not from the perspective of those who have never personally experienced the illness, but straight from the stakeholders on the front lines.

One of the reasons we as journalists use original sources and attribution is to prevent our personal biases from coloring the news.

In diseases where there is controversy or multiple conflicting scientific points of view the avoidance of stigmatization of patients may start with a simple question. How do I know this?