Thinking Outside the Quotes
Part 1: what it is like to be the “expert” quoted by reporters
I started this blog partly so that I can explain my specialty (treatment of injuries caused by snakes, spiders and scorpions) to people who encounter these fascinating creatures in their work, their hobbies, or their travels. But before continuing I want to make a few comments about the things you may see in the general media, where experts are sometimes quoted in order to make somebody else’s point.
Some stories by professional journalists are thoughtful, in-depth pieces. As a person interviewed, I very much prefer to be one of many sources in a well-considered report, whether or not my name ends up being used. I have been very satisfied with venom and antivenom reporting by Ken Alltucker, Steven Ambrus, Glen Derene Elie Dolgin, Laurence Gonzales, Christopher Ingraham, Tony Paniagua, Roni Caryn Rabin, James F. Smith, David Tobenkin, Mónica Ortiz Uribe, Lizzie Wade,and Pam White even when they say something I disagree with. A good interviewer makes me think; a good reporter writes a story that teaches me something new.
Shorter interviews tend to be opportunistic, using experts as means to an end. For example, once upon a time I was a frazzled pediatrician, in training to become a toxicologist. A local TV reporter came to my clinic to shoot an interview on a politically controversial topic involving environmental contamination. He needed to finish his work by 5 pm. I was rushed, there were crying babies nearby, and inconvenienced nurses hustled in exasperation behind me. I basically shouted over the din, “in theory, ABC! But in practice, XYZ!” The reporter left and interviewed my boss, who sat in dignity at his quiet desk, diplomas on the wall behind. He also said, “in theory, ABC. But in practice, XYZ.”
I didn’t watch the news that night, but the next morning, my friends said, “wow, you and your boss had a serious argument on the news last night! You won, but watch out the next time you see him!” Evidently disappointed to have two such similar experts, the reporter had first quoted my boss, in his apparent Ivory Tower, saying calmly, “in theory, ABC.” Then the tape had cut to me, looking very "real world," shouting, “in practice, XYZ!” We had a good laugh about it at the time, but it can be disquieting when this kind of editing is misinterpreted by colleagues.
The worst interviews, from the standpoint of the expert interviewed, involve what I call “quote fishing.” This is where a reporter tries trick after trick to get us to say one tiny juicy-sounding thing, even if it is patently stupid.
“Wow,” a reporter told me, one memorable day. “You talk in really long sentences. But I already wrote most of the story. And all I really need is one 10-second quote from you, about this child’s case being the worst you’ve ever treated, or maybe the worst in this hospital, or the worst this year. It has to be something extreme, for my editor. The other doctor said it was the worst he’d ever seen. Can you please somehow confirm that it is the worst?”
Okay, so here’s the deal with the other doctor: he was an orthopedic surgeon who was new in town, and the child with the sore knee was only the third snakebite consultation of his career. As the local snakebite expert, I had seen plenty of cases worse than this one. In fact, I had a much more severe snakebite case, that same day, in the intensive care unit down the hall from the child with the swollen leg. But my sicker patient was a professional herpetologist who had requested absolute confidentiality following a regrettable accident. I was not about to give away his privacy; nor was I willing to lie to justify a screamer headline.
I told the reporter no. His story was not about the “worst” case in any way I could think of. The human interest side might be worth reporting, but from a medical point of view it was moderate. Medium. Typical. Average. I tried to redirect him to a different way of seeing his story, but I failed.
The headlines the next morning quoted the “worst in my career” doctor and left me out entirely. For their “second expert agrees” quote, they had instead found a freshly graduated young pharmacist who said it was the “most vials of antivenom” he’d ever heard of being given to a single patient. The story caught fire, briefly, with echoes on several television channels and in a newspaper follow-up.
In clinic the next week, the mother told me that her child was spending all day in bed and weeping dramatically every time people mentioned being the worst snakebite case in history. It was difficult to convince my beautiful, healthy patient that things were going to be all right, that the antivenom had worked well, and that other kids with that much swelling got up to play and didn’t need crutches.
Experts tend to despise quote fishing, because of cases like this one where it caused harm. Click-bait stories using words like “the deadliest snake,” “the biggest dose of antivenom,” “massive hemorrhage,” and so forth are usually wrong. At the same time, they trap inexperienced doctors or scientists into looking stupid in front of their peers.
In Part 2 of this series, I'll describe a one-of-a-kind media experience that has lifted the hopes and spirits of a tremendous number of venom and antivenom experts: The Venom Interviews.
I'm a medical toxinologist, writing to make my field less scary and more understandable to people everywhere.