There will be a test

Seeing as I graduate in 9 days, I guess it’s good that I’m finally learning what they’ve been trying to teach me all along: Though it doesn’t actually exist in humans, journalists should strive for objectivity anyway. Convergence allows us to tell the same story in a different way with a totally different impact. Of the ethical principles, respect for persons is key.

As a masters student in health and medical journalism, I didn’t have to write a thesis or take comps. But there was a test, and I have a feeling it will continue to pop quiz me throughout my career…except now the stories I’m writing are real.

All smiles on camera. Click on the image to view the video.

Turns out they always were.

Meet Hammad Aslam, also known as my hero. In a story about to be published, I write about how he came back from a debilitating accident and continues to work toward his dream of becoming a doctor.

Hammad is one of five people I’ve interviewed this semester (for five different stories) who happens to use a wheelchair. I wish I could say this was a coincidence, but the media sometimes overrepresents minorities such as disabled persons for the sake of human interest.*

And as a source of inspiration, Hammad certainly doesn’t disappoint. One minute he’s coming out of a coma on the brain injury floor of the Shepherd Spinal Center, and the next he’s hacking it alongside his peers in medical school. In the video story, we meet a man who made enormous strides over the course of a year–his voice, his posture and his very presence all signal Hammad’s coming into his own.

…But of course that isn’t the entire story. At the start of the interview process, Hammad was brave enough to direct me to his blog. When I finally got around to reading it during the writing stage, I was a little surprised to find out I was in it.

An excerpt from his latest entry:

When I read this and the rest of the post, I cried. Here I was, just trying to get an interview in for my independent study. Of course I thanked him for his time and his honesty, but I never thought to thank him for his suffering, some of which I put him through.

For Hammad, every photo he sees of himself and every memory he recounts act as bricks in a wall separating his old life from his new one. By creating content from his tragedy, I’m speeding up the process by which he must accept himself as a paralyzed person. This whole time I saw myself as a pain-in-the-butt student taking up people’s time. I never stopped to think that, by virtue of being interviewed, they too would stop to think… and feel.

This is what makes the concept of objectivity so slippery. It’s not just about politics, it’s about actual people. How can we categorize their lives objectively as they unfold before us? Sexy as it may seem, how do we put them in a box?

Like Hammad, I will not let the tough questions deter me. Rather, I’ll recognize them as they come up and do my best to grow from them. And sometimes, when confronted with the big questions–the ones that demand we understand why things are the way they are–like Hammad, I suppose I’ll have to work with “I don’t know.”

*I’ve heard more than one editor use the term “sexy” in referring to topics at which the public craves a closer look. You can understand how that term, in context, can make you a little uncomfortable. Ooooh, AIDS…sexy.

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About jargonjournalist

Chelsea Toledo is a science writer currently working at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. She holds a masters degree in Health and Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. View all posts by jargonjournalist

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