Secret ‘patients’ = a journalism lesson

By · Monday, June 27th, 2011

UPDATED 6/28/11 to fix the link to The New York Times story.

I read the news today that the federal government plans to use “mystery shoppers” to gauge how the health care system is working, under the headline “U.S. Plans Stealth Survey on Access to Doctors” by Robert Pear at The New York Times. The survey is scheduled to start in a few months.

Doctors are horrified. As journalists, we should be, too.

In the story, doctors who are quoted — and named — use the terms “snooping” and “Big Brother” and “trust” in response to the plan, in which callers to doctors’ offices will not give their real names, will block caller I.D. and will pretend to be patients with specific symptoms in need of immediate care.

This plan reminds me of the discussions we have regularly here at the Newhouse School about whether it’s OK for journalists to pose as other people to get a story. Some argue that if that’s the only way to get the story, then the approach is fine.

Not so, I always say. Why?

The job of journalists is to cover the news, not become part of it. And truth is at the heart of what journalists do. If deception enters even one story, then why should people — who rely on journalists to tell the truth — trust anything that they report, ever again? How do those trusting people know when a journalist has used deception “because it’s the only way?” And when would journalists blur that line and use deception “because it’s the easy way?”

I am always asked, “Then how can journalists get the story?”

By doing what they do best:

This revelation in the NYT — “according to government documents obtained from Obama administration officials” — offers an excellent opportunity for journalists to get to work. If doctors out there are denying patients care because they can’t pay, then find them. If patients have had bad experiences trying to get care, then find them, too, and let them tell their stories.

A good place to begin is in the states where the government plans to start. According to the NYT story: “A federal contractor will call the offices of 4,185 doctors — 465 in each of nine states: Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.”

Isn’t this kind of story that defines investigative reporting? Truth can be revealed without hidden cameras, without pretending to be someone else and without deception of any kind.

Let’s see who can get it done.

Emilie Davis

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