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Redaction Watch: For public figures, is not knowing a right, a courtesy, or neither?


On Tuesday the New York Times ran a moving story about ESPN anchor Stuart Scott and his ongoing battle with cancer, including his 58 chemotherapy infusions. The subtitle: “ESPN Anchor’s Private Battle With Cancer Becomes a Public One.”

But how public?

In the piece Scott shares intimate details about his family life, the toll his illness has taken on his work, his coping strategies and his chemo regimen; the story includes a photo of his abdominal scar. What he doesn’t share are: 1) precisely what kind of cancer he has; and 2) his prognosis. He says only that his cancer has not metastasized and that while his colon has been resected, “…it’s not colon cancer. No doctor has ever said that it has spread to my kidneys or lungs.” He is not interested in learning what stage his tumor is in or his prognosis, which he says would only “…cause more worry and a higher degree of freakout.”

Scott is more than entitled to his reticence. Public figure or not, the details of his biopsies and all other aspects of his health are no one’s business but his unless he chooses to share them. An ESPN colleague says that she asked Scott about his condition on two occasions and, after hearing him relate his decision not to know specifics, no longer asks.

This leaves New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir in an awkward position. He wants to tell a story about a public person battling a deadly disease, but if he is to honor that person’s wishes, the nature of the disease and the current state of the battle must remain opaque. Scott denies Sandomir permission to discuss his condition with any of his doctors.

So, like any good reporter, Sandomir triangulates. Knowing the name of the drug Scott is taking, he makes inquiries about it to an appendiceal cancer specialist (we know Scott’s appendix was removed in 2007 “when the cancer first struck”) at another cancer center. For his part, the specialist seems unimpressed by the therapy, regorafenib, noting that it is “fairly toxic,” “doesn’t really create a response in patients,” and is “pretty far down the list of what we’d use.”

Okay, well…other than that Mrs. Lincoln, it’s a totally great drug, right?

While Sandomir certainly honors Scott’s wishes in letter, I wonder if, with this pivot,  he honors them in spirit? I don’t know.  One could argue that Sandomir’s job is to tell the story, with or without Scott’s cooperation. But was including a full-throated indictment of regorafenib necessary to do that? Certainly if Scott is relying on the placebo effect, reading about the utter lack of efficacy of his current therapy seems unlikely to help that effort.

I imagine most journalists see no conflict here. They will say that by consenting to be interviewed for the Times at all, Stuart Scott forfeited his right to influence, let alone dictate, what the paper might or might not say about his condition based on third-party sources like the aforementioned cancer specialist.

Maybe so. Many of us are completely comfortable with sharing intimate things about our health via social media: I, for example, have put my entire genome and health records online in a public way, as have many others.  Maybe we are at a stage where any attempt to manicure those sorts of disclosures in the media is seen as both unreasonable and unrealistic. So perhaps there was no other way to write this story.

But I think probably there was.