Unnamed Sources

Something interesting happened while we were creating the fall issue of CURE that got me thinking about how privacy has changed now that we have the Internet--and and how cancer can still be seen as something that can impact people professionally no matter what the law says. Specifically, we had a patient who agreed to be interviewed for a story. After the interview was complete (and a lot of work was done on the story), she decided she didn't want her real name used. The reason: she had received a query from an international company about a new job and she was worried that if they found out she had had cancer, she would not be considered. Her interview was not earth shattering in its depth. The story was not about her, but rather about helping women understand the decision making process when diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. But she was articulate in why she had chosen particular treatment.Nonetheless, she had an unusual name and was concerned that the company might do an Internet search and come up with the story. Her friends, family, and colleagues know what she is experiencing, and, initially, she was even willing to have us use her name (albeit sparingly) in the story. Then the call came from an international company.The accepted journalistic measure for using what is called an "unnamed source" is that going public would result in a threat of danger to the source and others. It is usually reserved for investigative pieces where laws are broken. Granted, it takes the trust of a source and reporter to create the kind of story that can have a true impact (think Watergate). Through the years, we have seen the erosion of the court system in supporting reporters' rights to keep unnamed sources anonymous--and the resulting problems for those who want to tell their story. But on the other hand. If a reporter does not identify their sources, you have the danger that credibility will be challenged by the reader. In some cases, for good reason when reporters want to spice up a story with a fictitious source and then are caught. The whole industry suffers.On the other hand, in the past, sources could tell their story without worrying that their name could be typed into a search engine and whoever was searching could get a lot of details about them. You have only to type my name into said search engine to read every story and every blog I have written, and it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to put together that I have had two cancer diagnoses. You would also be able to infer my political beliefs and lots of other things if you cared to analyze what's there. Let's just say, I don't plan to ever go into politics. So, I was sympathetic to this woman's plea that we change her name. She was in the middle of chemotherapy and enduring a huge list of side effects while trying to hold down a job. In the ensuing discussion with the editorial team, it came down to the fact that sympathy just wasn't enough to use a fase name. Our new managing editor Lynne Anderson comes from a newspaper background, and I expected her to draw the line on unnamed sources. What surprised me was why she felt so passionately about not allowing this for CURE. Aside from setting a really bad precedent, she said, it would diminish the power and courage of all those who have told their stories in CURE for the past eight years. We have had patients, survivors, caregivers, and friends offer the most intimate details of their lives. They have talked of the pain, anxiety, lack of trust of the medical system, confusion, anger, and even their sex lives. They have shared their joy and thanks for new drugs that have given them more time or, in a few cases, cure. They have invited us into their homes as they died to help us show our readers the many challenges that arise when cancer wins. Maybe I have gotten used to such courage, but one of the things that drew Lynne to CURE was the power of the magazine's ability to tell these stories in a way that makes the journey easier for others. To honor them we decided to find someone else at the last minute to interview. It's not an easy process to re-interview and rewrite, but there are times when it's the right thing to do.