As a health and medicine reporter at The Baltimore Sun for nearly eight years, covering Johns Hopkins Medicine was a major part of my job. I wrote about their medical research, but also followed them as a major institution in the city and one of Baltimore’s largest employers. This made for a delicate balancing act to say the very least.
While Johns Hopkins is admired around the world for its groundbreaking science and medical treatment, its relationship with the local community is more complicated. There are legendary folktales about people disappearing from the neighborhoods surrounding the main hospital in East Baltimore, and residents who believed they were snatched for medical research. Not true, of course, but such tales ─ dating back to the 1800s ─ persist. I was once told Johns Hopkins constructed its buildings facing away from the community, an affront to those who lived there. This also wasn’t true, but somehow the story lived on.
Then there were actual incidents that occurred at the hospital that over time have fostered distrust from the community. The most notable was the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her permission by a Johns Hopkins doctor. They were used in making thousands of medical discoveries, including the creation of penicillin. Lacks’ story, in a best-selling book by Rebecca Skloot that was turned into a movie commissioned by HBO, prompted Hopkins many years later to issue an apology. It now requires informed consent for patients to participate in research and has developed programs to recognize Lacks. But again, the story of her “stolen” cells lives on.
Then there was the death in 2001 of Ellen Roche, a technician who died after inhaling an experimental drug as part of research at Hopkins to better understand the causes of asthma, leaving many to wonder if participating in research at the school put their lives at risk.
Baltimore, with its high rates of poverty and many health disparities, is also the perfect backdrop for public health researchers, but residents sometimes feel used as scientists, epidemiologists and other researchers come and go while their neighborhoods remain impoverished and lacking resources. “Poverty pimps” were the words one neighborhood leader once used to describe Johns Hopkins and its researchers to me.
There was a stark difference in the way the small army that made up the Johns Hopkins public relations team responded to me, depending on whether I was writing about Hopkins as an institution or if I was covering the school’s research programs. Team members were much more open when it came to the medical research. Most times I could talk to doctors with no problem. The biggest obstacle was usually that a physician was away on sabbatical or busy at a medical conference. Otherwise, researchers were more than ready to explain their findings or how they had helped a patient.
Over the years I have written about fascinating research, such as the use of psychedelic drugs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and a plan to look at why people in the United Arab Emirates suffer strokes at a very young age. Hopkins has some of the smartest doctors in the world and I enjoyed every minute of picking their brains.
But then there was the other side of Johns Hopkins. As an institution, the school was very conscientious about its image and less forthcoming with information on sensitive topics. It often would take a few days to get an answer as the response to my question climbed up the chain of command, a pattern not uncommon at large institutions. I was usually given a written statement because Johns Hopkins officials didn’t want to put anyone on the phone to talk in detail about a touchy issue. I often found myself throwing up my hands in frustration at the final answers, which were typically stilted and very carefully crafted. This was true when I wrote about the family of Lacks’ pushing for compensation for use of her cells since so many other people seemed to be making money off of her story. Hopkins has contended it did not profit from the cells, although drug companies and others did.
Most recently, Johns Hopkins officials clammed up when I requested an interview for a story about their presence in Saudi Arabia after the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly done with the consent of high-ranking Saudi officials. It took several weeks to get a no-comment response and a brief written statement that Hopkins was continuing "to closely monitor the recent developments in Saudi Arabia." It followed a pattern of Johns Hopkins remaining largely silent about human rights issues in the Middle East, where it has a large presence. That includes a partnership begun in 2014 with Saudi Aramco, the government-owned oil company, in running a health system for some 360,000 beneficiaries. Not to mention that patients from the Middle East have long traveled to Johns Hopkins for care. They are a lucrative patient base.
Covering stories critical of Johns Hopkins required me to be professional, persistent and firm, but never nasty because eventually I would have to talk to them again for medical research stories. But it also meant never backing away from a story because Hopkins wouldn’t respond. I could easily have given up on the Saudi Arabia story, but it was too important to tell. Using these strategies, I was able to keep a good relationship with school officials while still telling the tough stories that they might not like. They understood that I had job to do and vice versa.
I recently joined the Sun’s editorial board, so I will no longer write traditional medical stories. But I will still be writing about health issues because it is one of my niches, or areas of expertise, along with social and racial justice. I will just be approaching my coverage in a different way. That also likely means dealing more often with public relations officials who may be less open with information.
In writing opinion pieces, in collaboration with the rest of the editorial board, I will find myself more open to writing something Johns Hopkins might disagree with. With a news story, we strive for balance and reporting on both sides of an argument. But the exciting thing about writing a well-argued editorial is the possibility of having a real influence on policy and provoking action.
I will use the same strategy in writing tough editorials as tough news stories. Be persistent, yet firm and open, and hopefully Johns Hopkins officials will continue to understand that we are all doing our jobs. Mutual respect is the goal.
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