Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I was always told that it is really important for reporters to have a good sense of the biases and credibility of their sources. After all, those sources are used to fill in stories by offering a perspective not always possible from the protagonists in the story.

So, it was with some surprise that I saw this quote in a local story about the MA AG-Partners Healthcare deal from a person who makes money by selling consulting services to hospitals.

“It strikes me as a very fair approach and a very smart approach. The AG’s office is saying they want to limit the risks around cost and forming a monopoly but recognize the benefits of a very high quality hospital system bringing services to a community that could benefit from it.”

That the newspaper could include this quote with no indication of the consultant's client list seemed wrong to me. I inquired about this matter on a listserv maintained by the Association of Health Care Journalists, asking: "Do you agree or disagree with me that quoting the healthcare consultant in this story without indicating his client list is a violation of good journalistic standards?"

Here are some excerpts from the response of a very respected journalist:

You are asking a very good but tough question.

There are a couple of factors that might cause a reporter not to ask about a consultant’s affiliations. First, I have never asked for a consultant’s client list and your message made me rethink how I will approach consultants in the future. Not sure any consultant would reveal that he or she consults with the hospital in question but maybe and it’s certainly worth asking.

Two, under the pressure of deadline I find myself looking for sources to comment and sometimes I’m just happy to find anyone who knows something about the issue. Sometimes the details of a deal are so arcane that it’s very difficult to find anyone who is knowledgeable enough to comment. That’s not an excuse. It’s just that there’s ideal journalism and then there’s the reality of getting the article done in time to get it off to the editor. Although I haven’t worked in a newsroom for many years, the pressure to get stories completed early can be intense. And sometimes when rushing, important details get left out or edited out when they should be in.

The answer to your question is: Yes, I agree that quoting the consultant without indicating his client affiliation is a violation of good journalistic standards. By leaving out that information, the writer is misleading the reader whether intentionally or not.

I think there is a good lesson here:  It should be standard practice to ask a source if he or she has or has had any financial relationship with the protagonists in a story or, indeed, the competitors of the protagonists.  That information should then be included in the story so a reader can make his or her own judgment as to credibility.  Perhaps the source would not disclose, but in that case the reporter should move on to another source.

This reporter has drawn on this source before, here to extoll the virtues of Partner's takeover of two hospitals north of Boston:

“This is a well-thought out strategy. Not everyone’s going to agree with this strategy. But while most consolidation that’s occurring around the country is to cover a geography or to get scale, this is a play to meet the needs of the community and to better position the Partners system at the same time.”

It is clear that this person is a handy source for the reporter to call when he wants comments on this side of the issue. But readers have a right to expect that the newspaper will do due diligence on the financial relationships that the source might have and disclose those findings to its readers.


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