Covering the stem cell story all the way to China

Posted on February 15, 2008 
Filed Under Journalism

Twenty years ago, Hal Burrows was paralyzed in a bicycle accident. He’d fought hard and had regained some movement, only to see it slip away when he reached his 40s. In 2006, he traveled to China for stem cell injections into his badly damaged spine, one of the first Americans to do so, suddenly regaining movement in his left arm. He hoped for even greater improvement on this second trip.

Reporter Tony Bartelme logs how he covered the story for The Post and Courier, along with photographer Alan Hawes, who had his own escape tale to tell.


“Aside from exploring Burrows’ personal struggle to overcome his disability, this story held the promise of delving deep into a contemporary political controversy and societal debate.

“Stem cell treatments like those offered in China aren’t available in the United States because of governmental roadblocks and concerns in American medical circles that the treatments don’t work or aren’t safe.

“Now our newspaper had an opportunity to use a local man’s experience to educate our readers about stem cells, which some believe have the potential to be one of the more important advances in medical care since the discovery of penicillin.

“I made my pitch, which combined aspects of all these arguments, but I doubted it would work. Though editors at large daily newspapers are often willing to dispatch reporters to faraway places, many small and medium papers across the country like The Post and Courier (circ. 100,000) now march to the drumbeat of local, local, local. During the past decade, the paper closed its bureau in Washington, D.C., and reduced or eliminated other in-state bureaus. Once dominated by national wire stories, The Post and Courier’s front page looks more and more like the local section. Though some readers grumble about this change, daily circulation is up, as is our readership on the newspaper’s Web site.

“William Hawkins, the paper’s executive editor, is a vocal cheerleader for this heavier emphasis on local news. ‘Local is our future, but we’re not so local that we’re parochial,’ he told me. To make room in the newsroom’s travel budget, he canceled a trip to an industry conference and told me and staff photographer Alan Hawes, who worked with me on suggesting this story, to get our visas….

“When I pitched the China trip, I felt I was pushing the envelope in describing it as an attempt to chase ‘local’ stories. But I returned to Charleston convinced that we do a disservice to our readers when we think local reporting only happens when we stay close to home. In an increasingly interconnected world, the definition of what constitutes local news naturally must expand.

“The question editors—and publishers—at daily newspapers confront is how to balance the costs and benefits of such reporting with their local obligation to cover city hall and lots of other local stories.

“Our trip wasn’t cheap, costing about US$7,000 for the two of us. But it wasn’t expensive, either, when one considers that it equals roughly the cost of sending sports reporters and photographers to two college bowl games. ‘If you think about it, everybody is going to have the same story about that bowl game,’ Hawkins observed. ‘But nobody else had the stories we did.’ “


“Other days when I’d been at the hospital, I’d tried to be very inconspicuous, keeping my camera in my backpack. But on this day I shot some photos of Hal in the hallway outside the room where the procedure would take place.

“After the procedure, the nurse who took the photos gave me the camera back. All seemed to be going well until I saw the panic-stricken eyes of another nurse as I was photographing Hal being rolled into his room. She confronted me, and I told her we were leaving.

“We rushed out of Hal’s room and were met at the elevator by several hospital and stem cell company employees. They asked if I took pictures, and I told them I did. A long pause followed.

“As the elevator door opened, packed with passengers staring at us, I thought about escaping into the elevator and was about to when one of the stem cell company managers said, ‘Just go.’ I held my breath as we passed the guards on the way out of the hospital and chased down the first cab we saw and headed back to the hotel. I promptly sent my photos back to the newspaper.”

Going to China by Tony Bartelme
Showing China—With a Local Thread by Alan Hawes
Miracle or Mirage? (fast)
Miracle or Mirage? (slow)


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