Thursday, January 20, 2011

Do you verify compelling stories before you promote them?

On the Reporting on Health blog, William Heisel has been taking a multi-part look at the hoax that resulted in a decade of misinformation about vaccines and whether they cause autism, and the series is itself a must-read. But it's part 3 of the series that will help make sure you don't get caught when promoting or publishing compelling human-interest stories from your customers, patients, donors or volunteers.  It's called "Trust Parents of Autistic Kids, But Verify Stories With Health Records,"  and you should make it required reading in your communications shop--even if you don't deal with patients. Somewhere, you're sharing stories, stories that people relay to you, stories with great anecdotes and conviction.  And you, no less than a reporter, should do your best to verify them before they see the light of day.
Heisel points out that reporters hesitate just as you might when thinking about asking for verification:
It seems rude and obtrusive, perhaps, to ask the parents of ill children to “prove” their stories by providing records. You don’t want to accuse them of lying about their case. Other writers don’t want to get involved with the details. They just want a quick quote to create the semblance of balance in the story. That’s why, after Brian Deer’s series about Andrew Wakefield’s discredited attempt to connect vaccines to autism appeared in the BMJ this month, parents of children with autism were allowed, unchallenged, to speak as authorities on the link between vaccines and autism all over the country....
So there's another side to your responsibility as a communicator. Ask for verification of the story before you put it out into the wider world, certainly.  But when a reporter comes to you with such an anecdote, work to find verification--and if it can't be found on your end, make sure that's abundantly clear in your statements.  Have you run into this issue? What's your policy for handling it? (Hat tip to Ivan Oransky for sharing this on Twitter.)

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