Dear journalists and editors,

By Grant Jacobs 02/03/2012 24

Please, when you decide to ‘advocate’ for a family’s fund raising efforts towards treatment for their sick child, parent or sibling*, check what the money is being used for is sound.

Articles about families raising funds in the hope of curing a seriously ill child* no doubt sell copy, but with that comes responsibility.

These articles, with their details of how to support the appeal at the bottom, effectively advocate the appeal to the reader.

Sure, you could say whether the treatment is sound is for the reader to judge before putting their money towards the appeal – but wouldn’t that be newspapers shirking their moral responsibilities?

If you put down details of the appeal in the article you’re effectively putting your weight behind it.

Editors, like most people, will be aware that articles in the press carry some weight of creditability, rightly or wrongly. There will be an expectation among many that the media has checked ‘the facts’.**

It seems to me either that this checking should done, and done properly, or the advocacy dropped.

My brief missive here follows from an article Siouxsie Wiles has just posted, raising concerns over an article out today in the New Zealand Herald. I won’t repeat the details here – you can pick them up from links in her article.

Like her, I will (later) pen a letter to the editor.

I will add this is an issue has previously bothered me from other coverage I’ve seen in the New Zealand media. It’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last, unfortunately.

On a related note, I have seen some rather blunt criticism of those willing to investigate these treatments or expressed concern. People need to respect that some will make the effort to put their time and skills, as the case may be, towards a critical judgement of a treatment. Rather than ‘shoot down’ these people and what they say, realise that these people almost certainly have respect for the situation.

Let me close on that note. I have every sympathy for families in these situations. Like most people, I have experienced people I care for suffer from cancer or other illness that have little hope of recovery. There is a place for critical analysis. Done sympathetically and thoroughly, it benefits everyone.***

UPDATE: There is now a long article covering the case that prompted my and Siouxsie’s articles that, among other things, delves into the medical background and options. I have admit I’m pleased that earlier in the piece his words echo my thoughts:

’Unfortunately, so is the credulous variety of reporting that doesn’t actually look into Burzynski’s treatment and the lack of evidence for it. […] That credulity is understandable in the parents of a child dying of cancer. It’s not so understandable in a reporter’

It’s nice to know I’m not standing alone in calling out for stronger journalism.


Siouxsie Wiles has already beaten me to this but I’d still like to add my voice!

* Niece, nephew, etc.

** People like me and my colleagues who have seen media repeatedly mangle science and medicine coverage will know the reality is less favourable…

*** It’s the, sometimes personalised, attacks or ‘shouting down’ that hurts.

24 Responses to “Dear journalists and editors,”

  • Burzynski’s team have a record of latching onto desperate parents and using them to elicit donations for his retirement fund. This is basically his business model.

    This case comes to mind:
    — when Team Burzynski set up a website asking for money so they would treat a child with brain cancer, then left up the plea for donations for six weeks after then child had died. Of brain cancer.

  • There’s a lot about him on-line, that’s for sure.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t expect journalists to have to get to the bottom of all of it, there’s far too much of it (unless you are trawling for a feature piece, perhaps).

    I do expect, though, that they do an independent check. My impression (and it’s just that, an impression) is that the reporter has filed what he got directly from the parents and the doctors with little or no effort to independently check if the Clinic, etc., was sound.

    The piece is heavy on playing out the appeal; only at the very last is there offered a belated and weak ‘balance’: “Jesse’s New Zealand doctors had mixed opinions about the treatment, […]”

    I’ve written before on so-called media balance and that it’s not a way forward for issues that rest on substance, i.e. fact, and in this case what balance is offered is insufficient.

    You’d hope that the doctors expressing caution would prompt the journalist or editor to check why. I believe doctors in New Zealand, generally-speaking, feel hamstrung about speaking out so a cautious remark like that is likely to indicate that there is something well worth checking.

    Even without this statement from the doctors, the important bit missing to my mind is an independent check (independent of the direct sources, that is).

    Just my opinion, etc.

  • Most young journlists have neither the intelligence nor the inclination to cover science/medical stories with any regard to the complexities of the issues involved. “Issues” is a dirty word in most newsrooms because the object of TV news in particular, and popular news in general, is to discuss “feelings” and to engage the emotions of the audience rather than their inrelligence.The paradigm adopted by these “so called journalists” is either to take the “magic bullet”/ “miracle cure” route or to go for the “killer epidemic/incurable disease” approach. You won’t find much in between. In either case unsubstantiated claims and emotive or gloomy mood music are used to heighten the sympathies or the fears of the audience. After 46 years in daily TV journalism I despair at the shallow and sensational coverage that now attaches to almost every topic.

  • “After 46 years in daily TV journalism I despair at the shallow and sensational coverage that now attaches to almost every topic.”

    Good to hear an old hand speak up – thanks for making the time to add your thoughts. It does seem pervasive. I once heard similar sentiments from a well-established player in the natural history documentary industry.

    Several in the on-line science writing community have suggested that one of the better sources of substantive commentary and articles are now the better efforts presented on-line by those with some understanding of the particular patch.

    I suspect you’d like the efforts of the (better of the) science-writing / science journalism crowd – they’re very strong on examining things for what is there (or not, as the case may be).

    (This reminds me that ‘yet another’ thing I ought to do is update my blogroll and the Other science blogs section. Too many things to do…!)

  • I produce the weekly media review programme, Media7, for TVNZ 7 — until June when (sadly) we will get the chop. We try to regularly look at the ways that science and journalism engage and to have scientists and science writers on our show. I agree with you that some of the specialist bloggers make a better fist of science that journalists in the mainstream. I also believe that journalism attracts people with good verbal and writing skills but with very poor mathmatical skills. This is a generalization that is backed up by years of watching journos try to work out percentages and to decipher such things as budgetary and demographic data. I went into journalism after failing the final hurdlews of high school maths. But where I cannot understand the numbers I get some specialised help to make sure that I do not make a fool of myself or mislead my audience.

  • I heard about that and was very disappointed. I had been looking into Freeview, etc., partly in the hope of picking up TVNZ7 as I liked the look of the schedule and it’s a pity to be losing what looked to be more intelligence material. (I can’t honestly judge it either unfortunately way as I’ve never seen it!)

    But where I cannot understand the numbers I get some specialised help to make sure that I do not make a fool of myself or mislead my audience.

    It’s the nut that isn’t it? – be aware of your own limitations and engage with others to cover them.

    This must apply to all professions. It is true for scientists: each specialist niche has it’s own skills and knowledge. (One thing I’ve written (in passing) is how it’s better for most experimental biologists to bring in a specialist to cover the computational biology aspects, rather than hopefully pop hard-won data into the text-box of a web service and push the button!)

  • Josephine,

    I saw your remark about writing to the journalist in the comments over at Orac’s place and in Siouxsie’s blog. As far as I know neither of my or Siouxsie’s letters to editor has been published – Siouxsie said they hadn’t been published in yesterday’s paper.

    Lest you think I left my colleague out (!), the link in ‘an article’ in “an article Siouxsie Wiles has just posted” was supposed to point to her post – I’m a bit annoyed that I didn’t see it was wrong earlier. (No-one pointed it out either! For some reason the link is to the previous article she wrote.) I’ll put that right in a minute.

  • herr doktor bimler,

    With the number of cancer “woo shops” that have been based in Tijuana over the years, even the name of the town should be an invitation to look closer.

  • Grant,

    I’m not surprised the emails haven’t been published, based on my experience with the British press, who have collectively published only a tiny fraction of the criticism. I think there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, they’ve already been in contact with patients’ families and are supporting their campaigns – this puts them in a a difficult position. Secondly, (especially in the UK), they are possibly deciding it’s safer not to publish controversial details of legal issues in case they are accused of libel. It is a lot easier to just stick your head in the sand.

    Also – I didn’t think you had left your colleague out! I found this and Siouxsie’s posts quite easily from your comments on the Orac post. I didn’t notice anything was wrong.

  • Josephine makes an excellent point. I t has been my experience that newspapers seldom publish anything that criticises them directly. Any criticism has to be indirect e.g. blaming “the system” etc

  • Getting news outlets to admit mistakes is a very difficult task. The NZ Herald is notorious for ignoring errors and even for turning a blind eye to the plaigerism of one of its columnists. Yesterday the paper published a tiny (30 cm.) correction noting thet the size of the TVNZ 7 monthly cumulative audience is not 207,000 but 1.1 million last year — and it hit a record 1.47 million in December 2011. The incorrect figure came from some ignorant ministerial adviser in Dr. Jonathan Coleman’s office and was quoted by The Herald in numerous articles attacking the continued funding ot TVNZ digital FTA channels. It took weeks of campaigning to get The Herald to correct the mistake. It was too, little too late to destroy an established canard which is still being used by detractors in rubbish TVNZ7 and shows like Media7. We are off the air in June and The Herald will have less competition and fewer voices to comment on its many editorial shortcomings.

  • I can’t say if the non-publication the few letters I’ve sent in represents a trend, but certainly none of my criticism of articles has been published let alone meet with a response, save for a very neutral non-committal acknowledge of a letter I wrote to one journalist.

    One of my pet ruminations, one that I haven’t written about yet but have been meaning to ‘forever’, is how much of this is from weak editing? Some, like Ed Yong’s recent blog article at the Discover blogs, have it that the weight of responsibility should lie with the writers. Fair enough perhaps but either way I can’t help but think that the editors really ought to be carrying (more) responsibility to the material presented too. (Ditto for producers/directors.) They should be the ones in the position of maintaining the standards for the publication or production, after all.

  • Phil,

    You’d think there is little excuse for not correcting a straight factual error promptly these days. At the very least they could update the on-line copy straight away or note that there is a contested view of the figures presented by their publication.

  • Hi all

    No letters printed today either. And no reply from Matthew to my email to him. Does make me wonder what the point is of having that ‘contact the journalist’ link at the end of the article.

    Phil, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about TVNZ7 in terms of why is it not listed in the weekend Herald’s TV guide, or in the NZ Listener. I’ve been meaning to contact the publications and ask, but from your comments I’d guess its about competition. Shocking really.

    I’m still really hoping some white knight swoops in and saves you guys. Wonder how we could do a last big push?

  • Siouxsie – just checked and TVNZ7 is not listed in the ODT TV guide either. In days gone by newspapers might have been ‘required’ to cover the schedules of all local (read: ‘NZ-made’) channels their readers could access.

  • For whatever it’s worth now (not much, I guess!), this is the letter I sent:

    Dear Editor,

    On March 2nd the NZ Herald reported the Bessant family’s efforts to raise funds to take their child to the Burzynski Clinic, USA, for treatment. (See ‘Hope for toddler with rare tumour’.)

    Articles about families raising funds in the hope of curing a seriously ill child (parent, sibling, etc) appeal and no doubt sell copy but come with responsibility.

    In presenting details of how readers can support the appeal the publication is effectively advocating the appeal.

    Rightfully or wrongly articles in the press carry some weight of
    creditability, that the publication has ‘checked the facts’.

    A modest effort might have shown that serious questions about this Clinic have been raised. The Texas Medical Board is currently investigating several charges against this Clinic including negligence, unprofessional conduct and non-therapeutic prescribing. Cancer specialists have voiced their concerns online.

    Done with sensitivity, critical analysis is informative and useful to the public. I urge journalists and newspapers to check thoroughly before offering details of an appeal, lest they promote questionable treatments.

    Readers may contribute to wider discussion at

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