As a young aspiring writer, Meg Wingerter got a thrill out of being able to ask her high school administrators questions behind the platform of journalism.
“There was something that was very intoxicating about how when I said I was from the paper I could ask administrators questions about why they were doing what they were doing,” Wingerter said.
Wingerter had known she liked writing for most of her life and wanted to find a way to be paid for it. Today, Wingerter makes a living covering health for The Oklahoman.
Before joining the team at The Oklahoman in July 2017, Wingerter spent several years at various publications across the nation. One of her first internships at a small publication local to Lake Michigan, the Muskegon Chronicle, began in 2010 and was the source of much of her knowledge today.
“During my intern days, getting over the fear of just calling people or just grabbing the man on the street– I was a pretty shy person so I had to get over that fairly quickly and get into the mindset of ‘not everyone’s going to like you and sometimes that’s a sign that you’re doing your job right’,” Wingerter said.
The Muskegon Chronicle eventually brought Wingerter on as a general assignment reporter, but after two years with the publication Wingerter knew it was time to move on. From there, Wingerter experimented with business writing at a publication in Kansas and stumbled upon her love for the health beat.
The Topeka Capital-Journal had never had a health reporter before, but Wingerter incorporated the topic with business in a new way. So when a position for a health reporter at The Oklahoman opened up, Wingerter thought it might be a good fit; and now she is the go-to person for health-related stories in the metro area.
This reputation lead a 60-year-old story to fall into her lap in September 2018.
Jim Carrier, a freelance journalist who was researching the history of a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease known as ulcerative colitis, was trying to find out what had happened to three patients who had undergone lobotomies as treatment.
Five patients were involved in the 1950s study conducted by the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, whereas two of the male patients died within a year of treatment, but the other three female patients’ stories were still shrouded in mystery.
Carrier had reached out to Wingerter in hopes that she could help.
“We didn’t know what happened to them. I interviewed him and did some research on that and I gave OU med school the chance to comment, but it wasn’t something they were real eager to talk about,” Wingerter said. “I understand given how far in the past it was, but lobotomies weren’t a shining moment of medical history.”
The biggest problem Wingerter said she encountered with the story was the question of “Why run a story from the 1950s?” After publishing the story, Wingerter said some public relations professionals reached out, asking the same question.
“It’s not necessarily the light they want things to be seen in,” Wingerter said.
But that gave more significance to the story.
“I think it’s always important when there was wrong doing to people that was never addressed, even in this case where it was not intentional wrongdoing,” Wingerter said. “In a sense of righting the historical record and saying that these people mattered and they didn’t have a voice in that moment.”
Wingerter said working on this story reminded her that journalists’ track record of deciding whose voice matters has not always been perfect. Journalists need to have more humility in making judgments about others, Wingerter said.
The patients in the article, for example, were dismissed as being hysterical at the time.
An essential element to the impact of Wingerter’s point in her piece on ignorant medicine is the emotion she is able to capture in her writing. The article ends with a subsection titled ‘We owe you an apology,’ in which it is revealed that the source is a victim of ignorant medicine himself.
Wingerter describes the anger in her source’s voice, even when he is trying to speak kindly of his doctors– a skill she said she has learned to hone over the years.
“You have to tune in, particularly in a story where you know emotion is going to be important,” Wingerter said. “It’s something that overtime you get attuned to and discover what has worked in other stories, what you need to be listening for and what’s going to connect with people.”
Though the story clearly has emotional impact, Wingerter said she has not had anyone who recognizes the people involved contact her yet, although she would love for that to happen.
A 60-year-old story might seem like a stretch for some editors, Wingerter said, but everyone has their own idea of what good journalism should be and sometimes you just have to take something and run with it.
Editors will also always have their individual preferences in writing styles, Wingerter said.
“Some editors, they want everything strictly inverted pyramid and some of them really want it narrative, setting scenes and some love the data, some want to see you schmoozing, getting the behind the scenes stuff,” Wingerter said.
But the key is to draw from everything you learn and develop your own unique style, Wingerter said.
“There’s a place for all of those things,” Wingerter said. “You can’t say that one is better than the other, so I encourage anybody who is getting started to take all of the feedback they can give you and use it to make yourself better, but not to think that there’s any one thing that you have to be.”