‘Enemy of the People’ reveals building blocks for ‘fake news’ story on cataract surgery

Cataract surgery #2 is in the rear-view mirror. I have decided to use the opportunity to don my journalist/ “Enemy of the People” hat and pull back the curtain on how trained reporters go about preparing for and conducting interviews in order to bring readers useful information.

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This is the hairstyle of a print journalist, but I am actually sharing this post-op picture so you can see my very dilated right eye.

Why am I qualified to do this? The obvious reason might seem to be those two recent cataract surgeries. The actual reason is my history as a professional journalist.

Before the “Social Work by the Seat of my Pants in a Snake Pit” years and my current gig as “The Happiest Public Librarian in North America,” I worked as a reporter and editor at two newspapers and one magazine. I continue to write freelance pieces for a couple of outlets.

Some reporters go to journalism school. My sister falls into that category. Some just write and write, starting at a tiny little publication – maybe their high school or college paper or a local alternative weekly – and work their way up the food chain. That’s how I did it. All my training was on-the-job, with some second-hand wisdom from the good professors in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire courtesy of the newsroom at the Marshfield News-Herald, full of reporters who’d all attended there and regularly quoted their professors in conversation.

By the time I got to Marshfield, I’d already developed my own writing hierarchy, to which I continue to adhere.

  1. Accuracy – If the facts aren’t right and it’s not coming out exactly the way you’re trying to express what it is you’re trying to express, keep trying.
  2. Accessibility – If you have to use big words and long sentences to be accurate, so be it. But if you can say it with small words and short sentences, that’s better.
  3. Cleverness – If you can do those two things above and be entertaining and witty and clever, more power to you!

The pay was terrible, but being a reporter was a great job. News reporters go where things are happening and gather information on it. The major questions in newsgathering are Who? What? Where? Why? When? How?

Let’s say the “happening” is a house fire. Here’s what a reporter sent to the scene of a fire needs to put together a story:

Whose house? Where is it? Was anyone inside? How did the fire start/how was it contained/how did people get out? When did it start/when was it contained? How many firefighters/battalions responded? If there were people in the house, did they get out? Was anyone injured? Killed? Were there smoke detectors? Who reported the fire? When does the fire department expect to issue a final report? What is the cost of the damage? Was there insurance? How much? (The Public Affairs Journalism prof at Eau Claire told his students to “follow the money.”)

The reporter gathers the available information and writes it in a way that anyone reading it can easily follow. Here’s what it might look like:

“Three people, including a firefighter, were injured in a house fire at 123 Broad Street on Wednesday. Captain Edward Schnauzer of the Mayfield Fire Department said the cause is unknown at this time, as is whether or not there were working smoke detectors.

A passerby noticed smoke coming from an upper window and called the fire department shortly after midnight. Two occupants of the house, a 39-year-old woman and an eight-year-old boy, were taken to St. Bernard hospital for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated and released for minor injuries, according to a hospital spokesperson. Three other occupants of the home escaped without injury.

Four battalions responded to the fire, which took two hours to get under control. No nearby houses were damaged.”

That’s news reporting. You go to the event, you find an authority who knows what’s going on, you cite that authority in your story (eg: the fire captain), any other authority who you end up needing to talk to as a result of talking to the first authority (eg: the hospital spokesperson). You might also get a quote from a neighbor watching, one of the people living in the house or, if the house was rented out, its owner, depending on their availability and the time between your reporting and your news outlet’s deadline.

This same principle applies to municipal meetings, political gatherings and basically any event in which there is a beginning, middle and end. If deadline precludes you from reporting on the middle/end, you report as much as you can on the beginning and then follow up to write the rest if the event warrants doing that. (Maybe the fire turns out to be arson for insurance purposes, children playing with matches, or faulty electrical wiring. Depending on the cause, the story you write will either be a small thing or something you follow through to a trial and sentencing. You never know, which is part of the adrenaline rush of being a news reporter.)

But today, I am going to be a feature reporter doing a feature on cataract surgery.

That “who, what, when, where why and how” of newsgathering is also going to come into play.

Who gets cataract surgery? Why? How? What happens? Is it covered by insurance? Are there complications? What are they? Those are the questions I’m going to look to answer.

Because it’s a feature story, I’m going to want to talk to (preferably local) people who’ve undergone the procedure. I will look for someone who is happy with the results, and someone who isn’t. I’ll want to interview a doctor who performs the procedure to get his or her take on what happens, what prospective patients should know going into it and about aftercare and followup.

I can’t do those interviews, though, until I’m educated enough to ask the right questions.

I’ve had cataract surgery. But this isn’t just a first-person story, even though I’m going to let readers know I’ve had the procedure.  So I will set my experience aside for the moment.

When it comes to background research, Google and Wikipedia are your friends, as long as you treat them as starting points and not final authorities.

Entering “Cataract Surgery” into a Google search box turns up 11,600,000 results in .54 seconds.

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The top of Page 2 looks just like the top of Page 1, minus the Froedtert ad.

The top result is an ad, which I know because of the “ad” box to the left of the URL.

Someone has paid money to have their listing come up first, a big ol’ red flag to anyone in the news or library business. Librarians and reputable journalists share a reverence for reliable, unbiased information. Our goal is for end-users to be able to make an informed decision about whatever it is they’re looking to figure out. The best way to help make that happen is by providing high-quality, objective source material.

Which is why Google is only a first step. I make a point of going several pages in – usually seven to 10 – to get a sense of what’s out there and what people are looking at and for. (Paid ads aside, Google tends to rank its results, so more popular results show up on the initial pages.)

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This is on Page 1
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I’d definitely check out the National Library of Medicine’s information. (Note that those paid ads are still up on the top of Page 3.)

I gravitate toward sites with .org, .edu and .gov as extensions. I don’t rule out commercial sites (.com), but if a site’s main objective is sales, there’s an obvious bias. I can probably do better with a different type of site.

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This is on Page 7. Good for seeing how doctors think.

In addition to my Google search, I’m going to hit up my local public or university library (assuming I have access to a university library) and check out their books and databases.

The difference between a search engine and library database is like the difference between your grandmother’s attic and her spice rack (if your grandmother is a great and adventurous cook). The former is full of random stuff that’s been piling up there for years; the latter is orderly, relevant and everything on it is fresh. In other words, it’s highly curated. Library databases contain information that’s been pre-selected by subject experts for reliability and quality.

I select my source material, I read it, I get literate about my topic. Some of that will come into my story, with citations from those articles ( e.g.: “According to a 2018 study by…. ). Other information will come from interviews. I’d want to talk to at least one person who had the surgery before I talk to the doctor, which would inform some of the questions I asked the professional.

The finished story will emerge from these elements.

With all my information gathered and in one place, I look at it as a whole, searching for a starting point. (I call this part “finding my way in.”) If I get it right, my final product will be accurate, accessible and entertaining.

Here’s a completely true sentence that could serve as the lede (journalist-speak for the first sentence) of how I’d start this first-person story:

“If I had run over my glasses three weeks earlier, it would have been a disaster. But cataract surgery rendered it a non-issue.”