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A Journalist Explains How To Get Your Story Heard

This post originally appeared in ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Group.

Journalists have tremendous interest in telling stories of patient harm. They expose the gravity of dangerous medical care, help readers relate to problems and provide a modicum of justice to the victim. Plus, the spotlight often spurs health care providers to improve, as it did with the recent death of 12-year-old Rory Staunton.
That said, it’s often hard to get a reporter’s attention when you have a story to tell. Even when you do, things don’t always work out the way you’d assume. So what’s it take to pitch a journalist? I asked some fellow reporters, some of the best in the business, what they look for in a patient harm story. Here’s a summary of their thoughts:

1. We have to be selective. There’s no way an individual reporter can cover every story, so we filter them. Reese Dunklin, an investigative reporter at The Dallas Morning News, says he looks for stories of preventable harm that expose patterns of misconduct or failed regulation and have the broadest potential for reform. Plus, stories need to be air-tight, he said, because medical institutions are also beloved in a community and will challenge a story before and after they’re published.

2. Be detailed but brief. Terri Langford of the Houston Chronicle said it helps for you to put your story in writing, with dates, names of hospitals, titles of providers and other information. Pinpoint the precise nature of the harm, she said. But all reporters agreed that it’s best not to be too verbose. “Don’t send me a five-page handwritten letter,” said Luis Fabregas of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I get dozens of emails and notes every year and while I always read everything, it’s better when something’s succinct.”

3. We verify every story. We need your medical records, which we’ll read and send to experts to examine. We’ll also need any court records, insurance statements or other documents that can highlight what happened. It may be impossible to independently verify the story. That doesn’t mean we think it’s not true. But it probably means we can’t publish it. “I always explain from the outset that my role is that of an independent fact-finder,” said my ProPublica colleague Charles Ornstein.

4. Contacts with regulators. If you’ve filed a complaint with regulators (say, a nursing board, medical board, state licensing agency, Medicare Quality Improvement Organization or other authority)  and they are investigating or have substantiated your allegations, be sure to let us know about it'

5. See the big picture. Tracy Weber, another of my ProPublica colleagues and Ornstein’s writing partner, points out that reporters get criticized for using one story of patient harm to indict an entire facility. “Our job is to ferret out whether a case is symptomatic of larger issues at an institution or in a unit of a facility or in staff training or infection control, etc.,” Weber said.

6. These stories are difficult and time consuming. It can take weeks for a reporter and medical experts to review a patient’s medical records, said Bill Heisel, the reporter behind the blog, William Heisel’s Antidote: Investigating Untold Health Stories. “Then the interviews with the patients require a great deal of care and, quite frankly, emotional resilience on everyone’s part,” Heisel said. “You are asking them to relive something hurtful in great detail and, if you’re doing your job, you are questioning some of their core assumptions about what happened to them or a family member.” Fabregas said he worked for four months on a story that ultimately could not be published because he didn’t have enough documentation. Weber describes reporting the stories as a process of “long and careful digging.” The reporter may not have time, she said, or the story may be too similar to one that’s been recently published. Reporters, she said, “must weigh every story choice.”

7. Share your story with ProPublica. There is an easy way to tell reporters about your patient harm story. The ProPublica Patient Harm Questionnaire is designed to quickly capture an overview of each story and will enable reporters to important trends and avenues of investigation. With your permission, your questionnaire responses may also be shared with other journalists who are interested. Find the questionnaire here.

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