Where the team behind MATTER write about writing about the future.

December 7, 2012 at 2:00am


Q&A with Do No Harm author

Readers of MATTER’s first article, Do No Harm, have been putting questions to Anil Ananthaswamy, the story’s author. We’ll be publishing his replies here this week and next, starting with his thoughts on the challenges of reporting on deeply private issues.

How did you gain the trust of the doctor and the people who suffer from Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID)?

Peter Brugger, a neuropsychologist in Zurich, Switzerland, alerted me to BIID. He works with BIID patients and he put me in touch with Patrick, the gatekeeper. I think because I contacted Patrick via Peter, it smoothed things a lot. We talked at length on the phone, and it was only later that I asked if I could visit him.

I didn’t do anything particular to gain Patrick’s trust. I was just myself, listening, not judging and reassuring him at all times that I would not divulge any details that could identify him. Patrick got in touch with David and the surgeon, and got their okay before introducing me to them.

I think because Patrick had become comfortable talking with me and had possibly conveyed that to them, I found both David and the surgeon very open, with the understanding, of course, that I would protect their identities.

How difficult was it to maintain a ‘professional distance’ in a story with such a human element? Or is the trick to get rid of that distance altogether, to encourage them to open up?

It’s somewhat hard for me to maintain a professional distance. When I am talking to people about their lives, I’m talking to them first as a human being and then as a reporter (even though they know full well that I’m a reporter, and my voice recorder is always on in full view). I think my subjects sense that. But you also need to have your reporter’s instincts about you, since you need to ensure the veracity of each and every bit of information you put into your story. It’s a fine line.

I was always aware of the detrimental impact the story could have on Patrick’s, David’s and the surgeon’s lives, and I think I was able to convey that to them. Maybe that helped them open up. They key in all this is not to trick your subjects into opening up. There may be special situations in investigative journalism where that is warranted, but this was not one of them.


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