The challenges of investigative reporting as a freelancer
In this special edition of Media magazine, journalists take us behind the scenes of their award-winning work, explaining how they got their stories, the obstacles they faced, and perhaps most important, valua
In this special edition of Media magazine, journalists take us behind the scenes of their award-winning work, explaining how they got their stories, the obstacles they faced, and perhaps most important, valuable lessons that others wanting to pursue similar stories may learn.
By Alison Motluk, winner of the CAJ Magazine award
In the fall of 2011, I was an invited speaker at the annual meeting of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, an advisory body to the country’s fertility specialists. I was asked to speak about the trade in human eggs, which had been the subject of a feature I had written for The Walrus a year earlier. I raised concerns about the safety of egg donation in the country, as did another panelist, Jennifer Lahl, who had made the film Eggsploitation. The third panelist was a renowned fertility doctor, Robert Stillman, whose topic was supposed to be cross-border reproductive care. Instead, he spent his allotted time trying to demolish the talks and reputations of his two fellow speakers.
Even more than his attack, which was mostly just unprofessional, it was the response of the audience, made up mostly of people in the fertility industry, which deeply disturbed me: the applause thundered on for several long minutes. That experience spurred me on to write the piece which was published in Maisonneuve. Doctors like Stillman dismiss individual donors’ stories as “anecdote.” That is a word often used in medicine and science to denigrate certain case studies, to suggest they are unsubstantiated or so rare as to be misleading. But case studies also sometimes give hints about what may be a
wider phenomenon. I wanted the people in that industry to know that the stories I was highlighting were not just those of donors trying to settle scores.
With only 18 women and their collective 52 donations, I could not hope to provide statistics on how often women were harmed in the process. But what I did try to bring out is how, even in this small group of mostly pro-donation women, adverse events were surprisingly common. It wasn’t that women were seeking me out to complain about negative past experiences, but rather, that I kept watching as they
went through successive donations and after they retired from donating altogether.
And it turns out that as I kept watching, I kept finding.
I started interviewing “Anna,” for instance, as she entered her fourth donation. She was upbeat, but ended up with severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, and in hospital for four days. What made it worse was that, although the donation was in Toronto, she had to fly home, ill, to a small city in British Columbia, where ER staff had to manage her care. In the months after this donation, Anna’s menstrual cycles did not resume. Another woman has also ceased to have normal menstrual cycles. Three other women suffered many months of uncontrollable bleeding. To put an end to it, one of those women had a hysterectomy and another has been advised to get one; yet another opted for a uterine ablation. It is not clear if this bleeding is related to having donated, but these women were all young — in their twenties or early thirties — and had either donated multiple times or had suffered severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.
And these are just the events that unfolded after I began interviewing them.Many women shared with me their correspondence with doctors, lawyers and brokers, their journal entries and blogs. Many also shared their medical records. I combed through them page by page and they proved to be a rich source of information. As I say in the Maisonneuve article, there are cases where all the evidence points to a problem caused by egg donation, but a doctor minimizes it or passes it off in hospital notes as something else: in one instance, blaming eating “a bunch of chocolates.”
Reporters writing investigative medical stories will find medical records to be a very rich source of information. Not only do they officially confirm details — dates, weights, numbers of blood transfusions — they also provide clues as to what was going on. I discovered that medical records from private fertility clinics (unlike hospitals) were very often incomplete, and had to be requested multiple times. Few doctors included details about how many eggs were retrieved or, remarkably, about the surgical procedure in which that happened.
Even after making very specific requests, pieces of the files were sometimes missing. This is an egregious breach of a physician’s obligation. One fertility doctor emailed to tell me he had forwarded the article to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Only the patient can request these records, of course, and journalists must use extreme care in copying, storing, transporting and quoting from them. I did help with the paperwork and the fees, both of which can be onerous.
I also told them they could change their minds after seeing the records and decide not to share them with me. No one did that in the end. If I had a tip about medical records, I would say: read them over and over. Then read them again.
These individual stories may be isolated events. But even if these cases represent all the adverse events ever related to egg donation in this country (and I know for a fact that they do not), I would still argue that they are unacceptable. These women’s experiences, and the limited scientific literature available, suggest that numbers of eggs must be kept low and donor women should be monitored closely after retrieval. Many of the problems I chronicle in my work could have been prevented if only the doctors had treated donors as real patients in their own right, rather than just the means to help their paying clients.
The research for this story was paid for by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research journalism grant. As a freelancer, I’m always thinking about how my material can be used in different stories.
I keep a running list of possible topics and outlets. My radio piece on egg donor health had aired February 19, 2012 on the CBC, before I even pitched the magazine piece, and it covered some of the same territory. But radio has different strengths: it allows people to hear the personalities of the women, to hear the emotion behind their words, to get a sense that they were real people with homes and dogs and children of their own.
I felt there was a great deal of nuance and detail that I had yet to report and it just wasn’t possible outside of print. I approached Maisonneuve after noticing that the magazine produced a surprising number of high-calibre, long-form investigative pieces. I knew the pay would be low, but I could never have imagined how low. Even though my egg donor work had been subsidized, and even though at the time I began writing for Maisonneuve, I already had all my research in hand, I definitely lost money doing it.
I’m glad I did it, but I can’t afford to do this very often. Investigative journalism is time-consuming and expensive. I worry about a society that’s not willing to pay for it.
Alison Motluk has been freelancing for 14 years. She writes for The Walrus, The Economist, New Scientist, CBC Radio, and others. She is based in Toronto. You can reach Alison at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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