Thursday, August 20, 2009

Truth or Consequences

Truth or Consequences. Some of you may remember this old quiz show that appeared on several TV channels between 1950 and 1988. Contestants on the show had to answer questions truthfully or face some usually silly consequences.

I got to thinking about this program last Sunday when I appeared on a panel at Killer Nashville, a writers conference held in Franklin, Tennessee. The panel was called “Medical Professionals on Medical Mysteries and Thrillers” and featured Linda Petrilli Duncan, Colleen Brogan-Raasch, and yours truly with A. Scott Pearson as our moderator. One of Scott’s questions dealt with accuracy in medical mysteries. He asked each of us how strongly we felt about the issue of credibility in our books.

The panel agreed that accuracy based on personal experience plus research was important to our stories. As could be expected, we all decried authors who failed to do their homework when writing medical mysteries. Each of us gave examples of false information contained in medical mysteries we’d read.

The conversation then turned to TV shows like “House”, “ER”, “CSI”, and “Gray’s Anatomy” that promote unrealistic views of medical personnel and the practice of medicine. We agreed that these shows sometimes do more damage than good because they influence people’s expectations of what science and medicine can accomplish. In reality, CSI officers do not get DNA results in twenty-four hours. Likewise, no self-respecting hospital would put up with the likes of Dr. Gregory House. If a real doctor performed the stunts attributed to House, he’d be booted out the door quicker than you could say ‘Mississippi’.

But, you say, these are fictional characters, and people know they must suspend their disbelief if they’re to enjoy a mystery novel or TV program. Maybe. But let’s face it. People are susceptible to believing the most outrageous things, and often confuse what is fiction for fact. I think this is especially true when it comes to what people read, see, or hear about medical matters.

Which brings me to the subject of “Truth or Consequences”.

Do professional writers have a responsibility to portray credible medical information in a novel or TV program? I believe they do. At the same time, I believe they have the right to build on that information to create suspense in a fictional novel or compress the information to fit into a TV time slot.

Can the same be said about someone who writes an op-ed article in a newspaper, or blogs on the Internet? Can someone claim immunity from accuracy when expressing an opinion on medical matters that could possibly influence hundreds or thousands of people? Does this person have any less duty to research the facts than a novelist or screenwriter?

I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why in my next blog when I discuss the consequences associated with the spread of inaccurate information.


  1. Hi Mary,
    As the writer of medical mystery and suspense thrillers, I appreciate your views about the need for accuracy about medical matters -- even in fiction. However, I feel that is vital that the author post a disclaimer in his/her acknowledgements that the work is not to be construed as a medical text. The same thing goes for the fictional author's website, as I have done in mine.

    I look forward to your continuing comments on this matter.


    Darden North, MD

  2. Thanks for your comments, Darden. Regardless of the kind of mystery they're writing, many authors do add disclaimers to their novels, letting readers know that the people, places, and events in their books are entirely fictional and should not be construed as representing actual living people or real places and events. It's not a bad idea, especially when the author is writing a medical thriller.