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The Invisible Slap
January 19, 2012
Like many, I've been following William Heisel's excellent SLAP posts. As journalists we all know, and some have experienced, what happens when large entities move against journalists and /or whistle blowers to prevent information on malfeasance or misconduct from being more widely publicized. In September, I posted about a patient advocacy organization the federal government brought suit against to silence their accusations of misuse of funds. (The same organization had successfully brought similar charges validated by the GAO a decade earlier.)
But, what happens when whistleblowers and journalists are silenced by indifference?
Late last year Reporting on Health member and health journalism professor David Tuller wrote a fairly comprehensive explainer piece on the convoluted history of the CDC and their failure to appropriately investigate a condition listed by the CDC as a Priority-1 New and Reemerging Infectious Diseases more than a decade earlier in 1995. But, he couldn't sell it.
Discover science blogger Ed Yong, who writes Not Rocket Science, disagreed with the editors Mr. Tuller approached and listed the tale under Science Writing I'd Pay to Read - November 2001.
This week in The Open Notebook: The story behind the best science stories, science writer Julie Rehmeyer interviewed Mr. Tuller about why he wrote the article and why he thinks publications didn't pick the piece up.
Mr. Tuller says: "I didn't want to write a rant. I wanted to write... This is what happened with the epidemiology, and this is why the situation is so screwed up... I think of writing this piece as being a proper watchdog of a government agency in an area that hasn't gotten much attention"
When asked why he thought he couldn't interest anyone in publishing the story he said:
".... I don't think it was on anyone's agenda as an important thing to think about...Editors are like the rest of us: if you don't know someone who has it, it's hard to understand what it is. And it's easy to ignore something that makes people homebound and invisible."
Mr. Tuller also hit on a favorite theme of mine – the failure to include context in the news.
People who know me know I am a huge fan of "The Elements of Journalism" by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach. In what they describe as the principles of journalism they make two statements in part that I believe apply here:
- "...As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need--not less--for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context."
- "...Commitment to citizens also means journalism should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society. Ignoring certain citizens has the effect of disenfranchising them."
Not every constituent group in society has a "sound bite" story or quickly told context. Not every group comes across as pleasant and congenial. But, should we base the news on such criteria? How accurate are articles that provide facts out of context? And what happens in our society when journalism ignores whistleblowers?