Reporter Offers Guidance for When the News Gets Personal

Published on
May 20, 2013

When the news broke last week that Angelina Jolie had decided to have both of her breasts removed due to her high genetic risk of cancer, Los Angeles Times health reporter Anna Gorman understood the situation all too well. Gorman herself found out that she was positive for same BRCA1 genetic mutation when she was 28, a discovery that would later lead her to undergo breast and ovarian surgeries to dramatically lower her own cancer risk. Gorman, who first wrote about her personal journey for the Times in 2007, revisited her experience this week in a very personal, moving Column One piece than ran on the front page of Wednesday’s Times. We took the occasion to ask Gorman a few questions regarding how her piece came about, as well as when and how health reporters might draw upon their own personal experiences in reporting health stories.

Q: When the Jolie story broke, did you know from the start your coverage would feature your own deeply personal experience? What was that decision-making process like?

A: I read Angelina Jolie’s piece on Monday night, but I didn’t know that I was going to write anything for the Los Angeles Times until Tuesday morning. That was when an editor asked if I would be willing to write a blog post about my reaction to Jolie’s preventive mastectomy. After my blog post went up on the Los Angeles Times website, the editors decided they wanted to me to expand it into a front-page story. Whatever I wrote – a blog post or a “Column One” – had to include my own experience having the BRCA1 mutation and choosing to have a preventive mastectomy. I knew that even though it wouldn’t be easy, that would be the only way to write the story.

Q: You write very openly about your family as well as your fears, emotions and aspirations in this week’s piece. But as reporters, we're not always comfortable becoming part of the coverage. How did you summon the courage to write about such intimate details and experiences in the first person?

A: As journalists, we are used to asking the questions and convincing others to share very personal information about their lives. We are not used to sharing our own hopes and fears. It is a good exercise for reporters. It was much harder to write the story in 2007, when I first described my journey to becoming a mother and my race to start a family before getting cancer. I felt very vulnerable and exposed after that story ran. But I also felt empowered by having shared my story.

This time, it was a bit easier because I knew the impact I could have. After the first story ran, I got many e-mails and calls from women inspired to get genetic testing. This week, I knew that sharing my experience was important and that my voice could contribute to the national conversation about BRCA, genetic testing and prophylactic surgeries.

Q: Your "Column One" story was given great placement in Wednesday’s Times, above the fold on A1. Were your editors hesitant at first about covering the story from a personal angle or were they supportive of the idea from the start?

A: The editors wanted as much intimate information as I was willing to share. Everybody around the world was writing about Angelina Jolie and her decision, but I had a unique perspective having been there myself. That was what would distinguish our coverage. I could explain more about the rationale for removing perfectly healthy breasts and about what it means to live with a deadly mutation and a fear of cancer.

Q: As health reporters, we all sooner or later encounter our own health challenges. What advice might you give a reporter debating whether or not to include her own narrative in a health story? When is it most appropriate to do so?

A: I have read some amazing first-person stories by health reporters but I don’t think this type of story works in every situation. I don’t think reporters should write about health challenges just because they have them. Reporters should consider whether there is a compelling reason to write the story. For example, does it reflect a broader, universal theme? Does it illuminate a health policy issue in a personal way? Is it something that others may be wrestling with as well? Will readers care?

Also, all health stories don’t have to be serious and depressing – I think there are stories to write that are much lighter and simply entertain the reader.

If reporters are going to write first-person stories, they also have to be willing to really open up. They can’t hold back, or else the stories won’t be nearly as powerful or meaningful.

Q: Are there any particular perils one should be aware of when writing about health in the first-person as a reporter?

A: Well, these are intimate stories. So if reporters are going to write about a spouse, a parent or a child, they should probably make sure the relative is okay with that or it could make things pretty uncomfortable at home. Also, health reporters should remember that not everyone understands these issues the same way we do. So the same rules apply as with every story – reporters should be careful to make their articles understandable and free of jargon.

Q: Your story very nicely interweaves traditional reporting and quotes with your own personal recollections and details. Was that an instinctual move, reinforcing and adding to your story with takes from other sources?

A: Honestly, I didn’t know if people wanted to read 30 inches about me. By Tuesday morning, the Times had already re-posted my 2007 story on the website. I was also on a very tight deadline, so I thought it would be easier to add in other sources than to come up with the perfect narrative about my surgery and decision-making process. And I thought the voices (a doctor, an advocate and a woman who had not yet had the surgeries) really added to the story.

Q: What has the response to your story been like this week, either from readers, sources or colleagues?

A: I got a ton of response, from readers, sources, colleagues and friends. Everyone was supportive, which helped me feel good about revealing the personal details I did. I again heard from a bunch of people who said they were encouraged to get genetic testing or to go through with preventive surgeries.

Image by Evil Erin via Flickr