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Integrity demands truth, even when it hurts

October 5, 2011
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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When I “chickened out” as a collegiate reporter, I learned a lesson I'll never forget

Every day, as editor of this publication, I make decisions about information in the hope of presenting you realistic, balanced, and believable stories and opinions on the pages of

Behavioral Healthcare. Many stories or story elements reflect what I think of as shared wisdom-thoughts heard in a public policy debate, a bit of news referred by a trusted source, or a concept or idea that seems essential for readers to know. Others take a different tack, cutting against the grain of common wisdom by expressing unusual, unpopular, controversial, or painful viewpoints.

The make-up of each story and the sum of all our stories over time comprise a Behavioral Healthcare that, we hope, offers objectivity, balance, and integrity that you can depend on. That said, I know qualities like these are intangible. So, let me explain how I learned them and what they mean to me.

It all started in the 1960s, when I grew up watching The CBS Evening News with my dad. I could think of no better way to “be where the action is” than to be a journalist like Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, or Dan Rather-intelligently slicing through the issues and getting right to the truth.

As an undergraduate, I worked hard to be the top reporter at my small college newspaper. One of the biggest stories that I ever “covered” involved the dismissal of a college chaplain, a well-known figure on campus, shortly after he and students returned from a trip to the Holy Land. The administration made clear that its position on the matter was “no comment,” which, to a journalist like me, was essentially a dare. So, I began working on the story, soon learning that the chaplain's departure occurred because he, perhaps not unlike Jesus himself, skinny-dipped in the Sea of Galilee in the presence of students.

After confirming this fact from an eyewitness who had reported this action to college administrators, I headed straight for the chaplain's office. On entering, I asked him to confirm that he had been fired. He looked at me, face ashen, eyes welling. “I was asked to resign,” he said.

At that moment, faced with his grief and humiliation for the foolish act that cost his career, I could not bring myself to ask further painful questions. Nor could I later bring myself to write that foolish, humiliating detail in my story, a failure of objectivity and fact that was noted by my advisor and fellow students.

In my first test of dealing with an uncomfortable truth, I chickened out. I couldn't write the truth because the truth hurt.

Now, fast forward about 25 years, to the story of another individual, educated as a minister, who spent much of his life helping to advance the cause of addiction treatment. I knew him personally, respected him, and had worked closely with him on a number of occasions. No one could dispute that the organization he led for so long made marvelous, lifesaving contributions to addiction treatment-work documented for years on the pages of Behavioral Healthcare and our sister publication, Addiction Professional.

Last year, this individual was snared in a web of financial impropriety that cost him, and his former organization, dearly. As part of this magazine's coverage, I began an editorial, hoping to capture the tragic dishonesty and inadequate oversight that made this downfall both ironic and inevitable.

I found this a difficult and uncomfortable piece to write. Telling the story with integrity demanded objectivity, a clear-headed judgment about dishonesty and mistakes made by people that I know, have worked with, and in some cases will have to work with in the future. I wondered once again, is it my place to judge? And, if so, am I doing it honorably and honestly?

I didn't hear a word about the story for months after its publication-no recriminations, no corrections, nothing. Then, early this year, I learned that a jury of my peers named it the best healthcare editorial of 2010. I could only shake my head-the honor had been hard won.

I've lived long enough to know that I'd gladly trade any journalism award for a world in which I could objectively report stories with universally happy endings. I'd love nothing more than to write with integrity and balance about therapies that always work, consumers that always recover, programs that are always funded, technology that never fails, professionals and competitors who never disagree, and groups that offer information without a hint of self-interest.

But alas, we live in the real world. My colleagues and I are here to see and report on that world, with all the objectivity, integrity, balance-and occasionally courage-that our work demands. And, for as long as you will have us, we'll keep right on reporting, doing our best to get it right, even when it hurts.