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Columbia Missourian

Clarifying the positions of patients, advocates in the breast cancer screening debate

By Tom Warhover
November 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

Dear Reader,

Last week, reporter Alanna Nunez interviewed a surgical oncologist and a patient at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. She was doing a follow story on a national report about new recommendations for breast cancer screening.


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The changes by the U.S. Preventative Service Task Force are controversial. The task force says women should consider breast cancer tests a decade later, at 50 instead of 40.

Nunez wanted to talk with people affected by the issue. Happy coincidence: Ellis Fischel officials contacted the Missourian and said the oncologist would be able to speak on the issue at the center a little after noon. While at the center, a breast cancer patient was "made available" to Nunez as well.

A person might make the assumption that Nunez made -- that the patient happened to be at the hospital for treatment, and while there agreed to talk with the press. Later in the afternoon, though, Nunez learned that the patient had been brought in specifically to talk with journalists.

Is that OK?

Advocates can advocate. Journalists quote them all the time.

The scenario didn't feel quite right to Nunez and her editor though. They decided to leave the oncologist’s statements in, but take the patient out of the story.

The reasoning: It should be quickly clear to a reader of the doctor’s role – he’s paid by the cancer center and speaks from that experience. But it wouldn’t have been as clear that the patient’s presence wasn’t just a matter of happenstance; she was, in effect, a spokeswoman for the issue, even if Ellis Fischel didn't advertise her as such. 

Another option might have been full disclosure. Playing "gotcha" journalism with someone with breast cancer doesn't seem quite right, either, does it?

An update on an apology

Last month I told you about a mistake by Missourian photographer Chris Dunn during a murder trial. A few shots she took included the jury in the background, which is an absolute no-no in Missouri courts.

Dunn wrote a letter of apology to the judge.

A few days later, the circuit court administrator called to let me know that Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler wasn’t satisfied with the letter because it attempted to rationalize her behavior rather than simply accept responsibility.

I promised the administrator that I would follow up with Dunn, and did.

I didn't ask her to write another letter to the judge, though, because she had spent days apologizing over and over again – to her colleagues at the Missourian, to her classmates, to me, and to the public in the form of a blog post.

I thought she had done enough.

Apparently, though, the judge was expecting a second letter. On Friday, Oxenhandler wrote an order barring Dunn from the court for 30 days.

On Monday, the judge received a letter of explanation from me, and a second letter of apology from Dunn.

On Tuesday, he entered another order setting aside the ban.