Viewpoint: Medical reporters need strong grasp of ethics

By Rebecca Jung

“In order to write about life, first you must live it.”

This statement by Ernest Hemingway rings true and is especially applicable to health and wellness writing.

This beat requires a special kind of ethics. I would even argue that it requires a higher standard of ethics than standard journalism.

I’ve written about rape, suicide and, most recently, miscarriage and infant death. During the interviewing process, sources recounted very personal stories to me, and often questioned at what point including these personal stories would be crossing a line.

To answer this question I put myself into the shoes of my sources and fell back on ethics and medical ethics lectures from the days when I was a nursing major.

The key is to give enough information to tell the story while at the same time protecting a patient’s privacy.

How would I feel if that was my story and suddenly it was blasted out for potentially anyone in the world to read? How would I want my story to be told?

I think the standard for health and wellness reporting needs to be raised in several ways for this very reason.

First, as a health care writer I can say that my colleagues and myself are the middlemen. We’re the gatekeepers for information. We research and ask questions.

Our responsibility is to ask the tough questions and find the answers and provide that information in a factual and functional way that allows our readers to easily access and understand that information.

As such, we have a basic responsibility to have some kind of previous health knowledge.

Just as doctors go to medical school, health writers should have some kind of basic education on anatomy, medical terminology and health care ethics.

I’m not saying we should have some kind of advanced medical degree, but having an anatomy class or two in college wouldn’t hurt. Actually, anatomy was a very painful class when I took it, but the knowledge now is worth it.

We deal with this information every single day, and it would be a good idea to have a basic knowledge of health and wellness before we ever start writing. We owe it to you to know what we’re talking about, and to make sure that it is factual.

Second, I think a responsibility falls on editors to know their reporters.

They need to know which reporter is going to best serve on this beat.

It takes a special person to be able to handle the topics we cover.

You have to remain objective, but you still should feel. Then channel those feelings into the article you’re writing.

If you’re a health wellness writer and you aren’t feeling, you need to stop writing about this topic.

Maybe even stop writing in general because the ethics of health and wellness writing starts with being a human.

Rebecca Jung is a senior journalism major from Waco. She is a reporter for The Lariat.