Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Credibility of sources

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.


Anonymous said...

Just googled the quoted guy. He was quite adept at extracting eyebrow-raising fees -- "nearly $2 million a year for the services of two consultants, one of them part time" for a contract that did not "guarantee or assure the achievement of any particular performance objective."

"Some doctors had privately complained about the high level of compensation being drawn from a financially strained system serving the city’s poor."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. Great education for me.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem an undue burden for the journalist to ask the question you suggest of his prospective source; simply done via email or phone. If the source declines to provide that information and the journalist is in a hurry, then the refusal should be included, and readers can draw their own conclusions. As it is, anytime the word 'consultant' is used about a source, I automatically discount his/her quote by at least 50%. There is nothing at all unbiased about being a consultant. Even if the person didn't have PHS on his client list, they could be on his wish list.

nonlocal MD

Barry Carol said...

After the tech and telecom stock market boom of the late 1990’s and subsequent bust, financial television shows, when they had analysts and portfolio managers on to talk about specific companies, would show a screen that indicated whether or not the person being interviewed owned the stock for himself or if his family did and whether or not his firm had an investment banking or other business relationship with the company or would seek such business in the future. In research reports, at least some Wall Street firms would require their analysts to indicate whether or not they had a financial interest in the securities of companies they wrote about. I think it’s important to allow readers to have some way to make a judgment about the perspective of supposed experts being quoted in articles like this and whether or not actual or potential conflicts of interest exist. If such information could not be determined because of deadline pressure or other reasons, a disclaimer to that effect should be included as well.

Emily Beaver said...

Paul, thanks for bringing up this point and sharing it with AHCJ members. It's easy to forget about the larger conflicts and problems when you're trying to hunt down sources on deadline. This gives me something else to think about when I'm vetting/interviewing sources.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks, Emily. I think Barry makes some excellent suggestions in his last 2 or 3 sentences.

Naomi Kaufman Price said...

From Facebook:

Sloppy. You can quote me.

Norma Sandrock said...

From Facebook:

So ironic (again.) Any physician giving any CME talk, grand rounds, etc. is absolutely required to reveal any real or potential conflict of interest. What is it with rules that apply only to other people and why is everyone so eager to pile on these rules for doctors? Where did everyone get the idea that we're so darned evil and must be kept in line?

akhan13 said...

Norma, this has nothing to do with being 'good' or 'evil'. Physicians hold a unique privilege and responsibility in controlling access to medical resources, and so greater disclosure is expected. I can't go pick up antibiotics myself, a physician must serve as an agent in prescribing and/or providing medical goods and services. Knowing their relationships is therefore considered important, as they control most of the decisions in reality, through both formal power and knowledge asymmetry.