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The power of a written opinion

SPRINGVILLE — We’ve all heard the old saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” As a journalist, I always try to make sure the news stories in the Journal are as objective and factual as possible, to bring the community “just the facts, ma’am,” because the truth of the matter is, stating one’s opinion in a public forum is fraught.

Take what happened when a pair of journalists wrote about their opinions of Lisa Bonchek Adams, a Stage IV breast cancer patient who blogs and tweets about her experience with the disease.

In a column in Britain’s The Guardian titled “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?,” Emma Keller questioned Adams’ self-disclosure and Keller’s own fascination with it, writing, “Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”

Adams responded that she felt misquoted, misread and most troubling to me, quoted from a series of direct twitter messages with the journalist, without her knowledge or consent. The article was removed from The Guardian’s website, “pending investigation” about its alignment (or lack thereof) with that newspaper’s code of ethics, but the damage had been done.

The flurry of opinionating didn’t end there.

Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times and Emma Keller’s husband, weighed in with his thoughts on Adams in his Sunday New York Times column.

Bill Keller used Adams’ case to compare differing approaches to cancer treatment, contrasting her care at New York’s Sloan-Kettering Hospital to that of his father-in-law, who died of cancer in 2012 in a British hospital.

“There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America,” he wrote.

His column also quoted a dean at Stanford’s medical school, Steven Goodman, who said Adams’ blog, “shouldn’t be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.”

A virtual storm of comments followed, including a tweet from Adams herself that read, “The main thing is that I am alive. Do not write me off and make statements about how my life ends TIL IT DOES, SIR.”

It should be noted that Emma Keller is also a breast cancer survivor who has had a double mastectomy, and accordingly, can comment, to some extent, on the experience of the disease and her experience of reliving it through Adams’ commentary. But does that give her, or her husband, the right to criticize Adams’ experience and her expression of it? For that matter, does anyone have that right, except Adams herself? Where is the line?

I struggle with this, when writing opinion pieces in this space. I think that journalists have to be careful about what opinions they express in a public forum, especially when others’ lives and feelings are on the line. As editor of this paper, I realize that I have the power to share my opinion with a wider audience than many, and I don’t take that power and responsibility lightly. Perhaps some of us who enjoy that privilege, like the Kellers, have gotten so enamored with the ability to share our viewpoints that we have lost sight of what it means to be able to do so: That we can hurt those our opinions affect, whether or not that’s our intention.

I’ll give you another old saying your mother may have told you, like mine told me, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

But they do, don’t they? The Kellers probably didn’t mean to hurt Adams. I’m sure they didn’t mean to trivialize her experience or shame her for sharing it in the way she sees fit. We’re fortunate, in this country, to have the freedom to speak about those experiences, and all three of the parties involved enjoy and should exercise that right. But there’s a limit, I think, to what we should say, regardless of what we can say.

Keller responded to critics with this statement: “I tried to be clear in the column that I respect Lisa Adams’ choices, and I meant it. I wish every cancer victim could have those options – to fight with all the resources of medicine, or not.

“I think some readers have misread my point, and some – the most vociferous – seem to believe that anything short of an unqualified ‘right on, Lisa!’ is inhumane or sacrilegious,” he continued. “But I’ve heard from readers who understood the point and found it worth grappling with.”

The point I’m grappling with is where that line of “humane” lies. I think about that, every time I sit down to pen an editorial or a thought piece. I think we all should think about how our opinions will affect the readers or listeners, whether we’re writing a column, a blog, a tweet, a Facebook post or just sharing conversation over coffee at Julie’s. I think we all need to be careful with our words, whenever we’re straying from “just the facts ma’am.” Because I disagree that words can never hurt us. Bruises from sticks and stones will fade and disappear over time, but the emotional scars words can leave often last a lifetime.

Maybe the Kellers could have thought about that, before adding to Adams’. Maybe we all should.
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