Journalism Ethics: Mystery desserts, midnight karma and the best story I never wrote

Historical clippings, pictures and interview notes for the juiciest story I never wrote.

I’m not an ethics expert, I confessed to the room full of students and faculty members attending Engaging Ethics, a Hollins University conference held earlier this week. I  tend to do my best reporting when I go with my gut. What else do you fall back on when you’re alone with a subject and have to make split-second decisions about how to handle sticky material, or ask a painful question or negotiate whether you’ll write the story at all?

It was obvious from the questions lobbed at me and veteran television anchor reporter Keith Humphry that people in our audience believed that ethical standards have dimmed in this age of 24/7 media.

This may sound corny, but  most professional journalists I know believe we’re trying to serve the greater good, whether that means helping a community heal from a tragedy like the Virginia Tech shootings or helping readers understand the signs of PTSD in returning veterans. I touched briefly on three scenarios I regularly face in the field and on the fly before presenting a case study from 2002.

• First lesson: How you treat people matters.

I seriously considered quitting my job the day after the Virginia Tech shootings. That’s how much I didn’t want to call grieving families on the phone. When more than 500 reporters from across the globe converged on Blacksburg, I wanted to flee screaming from the scene. Grieving people were sick of us, and some of my reporting brethren made me sick, too. One guy faked a broken arm so he could interview the wounded at the hospital.

But I was proud of how The Roanoke Times handled the coverage, realizing that the big media would leave and we’d still be here. We may not have gotten every story first, but we didn’t camp out in grieving family’s yards or photograph them sneaking into funeral home offices. In the long run, we ended up with deeper stories built on the most important element in journalism: trust.

Lesson two: Objectivity is a worthy goal. But there are times when you can’t NOT get involved.

Picture a hospital in northern Haiti decimated with cholera. Pre-election riots are about to break out, trapping the medical team you’re covering inside a hospital compound. The doctors are hemmed in by the very people they’ve been sent to help.

Messages are lost in translation with no interpreters available. You’re surrounded by dying people, tired hospital staffers and grieving family members — including a mother who’d left her dead husband by the roadside so she could save her mother and child.

What do you do when a man asks you for money to help bury his son? How about  when a doctor you’re writing about who hasn’t slept in two days asks you to fetch supplies from the office, or mix up baby formula, or how to say “please return in eight days” in Creole?

You do the right thing. Be a person first.

• Lesson three: Give a guy a break but (gently) persevere.  Not long ago an editor and I debated the merits of sharing a prepublication story with a veteran suffering from serious PTSD. Ken, a 52-year-old former Guardsman now on full disability, had backed out of a profile I was working on about him early in the spring. His hands trembled during our first two-hour interview, and his wife told me later that recounting his story to me had left him an emotional wreck. Anticipating this, I’d researched how to interview with people with PTSD ahead of time, but none of my strategizing seemed to help. War was hell, and so was coming home and spilling it out to a newspaper reporter, no matter how empathetic she seemed.

But I kept in touch with Ken over the next several months. By May he was training dogs as part of his therapy. By September I detected the first whisper of optimism in his voice as he recounted a fishing trip to Florida. Seven months after our initial meeting, I asked if he’d reconsider letting use a part of his story, as well as some wonderful photos our photographer had taken before he backed out, and he agreed. He’d be a small piece of a larger story on treatment that a colleague was putting together. I read him the section I prepared, explaining that she would pull from it. Then he asked: Can I read the whole thing? I could tell he wasn’t trying to play me to manipulate the story. But he desperately needed to understand how we were presenting him, in context with the rest of the series.

In general, that answer is: Sorry, no. For myriad reasons. If we allowed subjects to preview every story, we’d never get anything done. People would try to take paint themselves in the best possible light, retract juicy bits, pitch holy hell about every piddling detail. That’s the fear.

There are strong policies against this practice at many news organizations. But Walt Harrington, one of my journalism gurus, gave a group of disciples his blessing to ignore those rules. At a conference a few years back, he shared that he usually reads lengthy narratives to his subjects as a kind of last interview. Ideally, you’ve spent so much time with them by this point that there are rarely any surprises, and there are times when a subject does correct errors of fact and/or interpretation.

I don’t fall back on Walt’s Rule often — maybe twice a year, and usually only on long narratives in which I’ve summarized mightily, putting my own spin on what I’ve observed and felt and gathered over the course of many interviews. Never has a subject surprised me by freaking out over my draft, for we’ve discussed the material at length many times before. Usually, the story gets better because the person finally figures out exactly what I’m trying to do.

Sometimes during the read-through I learn that I have a date, or color, or the fact of some random matter wrong. I remember the lawyer/marathon runner with stage-four cancer correcting me, gently pointing me toward a deeper understanding: No, it wasn’t the sleepless nights that got to her; it was the dreaming. “I was swimming across the ocean and had to reach the other side because there were children who needed me or they would die,” she said as I read her my draft.

Still, most old-school newspapers editors recoil at the idea of sharing stories before publication. But if bending our policy to help someone with a serious anxiety disorder feel calmer about seeing his name and face in print, I don’t see the harm.

It’s not like I’m breaking an actual law. That is, I’m not smoking hash with my subject, as was the case in a rapport-building reporting scenario described by Pulitzer-winning writer Gene Weingarten in a recent ethics session at the Mayborn literary nonfiction conference that was as hilarious as it was thought-provoking. Sure, I’ve had a beer or two with a subject when the occasion merits. On my beat, which tends to focus on immigrants and other underdogs, I’m more likely to be offered things like vegetables that have been washed in a fish pond (in rural Mexico), orange Fanta (by myriad Roanoke refugees who don’t know I’m borderline diabetic) or mystery desserts (one gooey concoction was made of gelatin, sugar and peanuts) or celebratory lamb that I’ve just watched a toddler walk through on the floor. (True stories, and the lamb was quite tasty!)

I’d rather get sick than offend a subject by refusing their homemade, hard-earned food. But relationship-building decisions are always are case by case, and it’s hard to understand — especially far away, from a news editor’s desk — how far a reporter should go to earn an important subject’s trust.

The best editors trust their people in the field. I’ll never forget going to managing editor Rich Martin in tears about a story I’d spent weeks researching. It was a juicy historical piece about the most sensational murder to hit Roanoke: In 1949 a 16-year-old Eagle Scout killed a beautiful Jefferson High School cheerleader in the basement of a prominent church. It made the covers of pulp magazines and commandeered our paper’s front page for months on end. People from their graduating class and others in the community still wonder what happened to the murderer after he got out of prison.

With the help of our savvy news researcher, Belinda Harris, I learned that he’d led a productive second life several states away, becoming a civic leader, church elder and businessman. He died without his children ever realizing his crime. I presume they’re still unaware.

“This story won’t help anybody; it’ll just injure us,” his sobbing widow told me in one of two brief conversations we had at the end of my reporting. “If you print this, you’ll have another obituary on your hands. Maybe more.”

It felt exactly like I’d made my 84-year-old mother cry.

I still have the lede and outline, myriad interviews with relatives from both families, recollections from people who worked the case and  schoolmates who recall what they wore to her funeral. Every now and then someone calls out of the blue wanting to write a book or a screenplay about the tale, asking me to reveal the story’s end, or tell them how I found it. I don’t.

It was the best story I never wrote — an epic tale of violence and redemption. The end of innocence.

Someone else may very well finish the tale one day. But it won’t be me.

But don’t the man’s children have a right to know what he did? the students at the ethics conference wanted to know. What if an unsolved murder in his faraway state turns out to have involved him? How’d  the victim’s family react to the prisoner’s early release?

Another student answered for me. “Was it a matter of ‘First, do no harm?’ ” she offered.

Yep, and knowing my own particular brand of midnight karma. If the story isn’t serving some sort of greater good, I won’t sleep well having told it.

Will it nag at you in the middle of the night? Will you make your mama cry? Those are the real ethical questions to ask.

Leave a comment

14 Comments

  1. Terry

     /  September 28, 2011

    So enjoyed reading this, Beth. It’s nice to be able to peek in and experience your life moments- all the way from Podunk, Ohio!
    Love you, Terry

    Reply
  2. Tonia Moxley

     /  September 28, 2011

    That’s a tough decision. I understand that the wife and children would be hurt. But there is also the fact that the killer went on to have a full life, and the girl he killed didn’t. I think I would have done the story.

    I never sleep well when I’m writing about a tragedy, whether it’s a murder, or just a car crash that has devastated a family. I do believe you have to go with your gut, though. And what’s right for one writer might not be right for another.

    Reply
  3. bethmacy

     /  September 28, 2011

    Good points, Tonia. I actually interviewed the victim’s brother at length. While he was disappointed the killer got out of prison early and felt that justice had not been fully served, he also had concerns about hurting his family members, whom he believed to be as innocent as his sister was.
    Another truth, for better or worse: I’m not tough enough to do a story like this, I’m just not.
    Thanks for reading! xoxox Beth

    Reply
  4. Beth Wellington

     /  September 29, 2011

    There are all kinds of toughness, Beth. I think you show yours in a different way. In physics toughness is the ability to material to absorb force and bend without shattering : )

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  September 29, 2011

      Thanks, Beth. And thanks for coming out to the conference. Every time I’m at something like that and you’re there, you always ask the best questions! I appreciate the contributions you make to civic thought. Best, Beth
      p.s. You’re right about toughness. It’s best to know your shattering point, isn’t it?

      Reply
      • Beth Wellington

         /  September 29, 2011

        Awww! Thanks! BTW I need a copy editor. I meant to type “of a material” not “to material” lol I’d blame it on the detached retina still healing, but I committed all sorts of offenses prior to the surgery…

        Not only do you inspire good questions, you also engage in real journalism, not just reporting reduced to stenography or “he-said, she-said” accounts. I remember reading this piece and admiring how such is the case even in your shorter pieces: http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/256908
        You, Mike (Hudson) and Mary (Bishop) are among my heroes.

  5. Rich Martin

     /  September 29, 2011

    Good column. You can be tough and still have a heart, and you’ve got a big one. That’s one of the things that makes you such a good reporter, not to mention a good person. Thanks for linking to my book!

    Reply
  6. bethmacy

     /  September 29, 2011

    Thanks, Rich. A lot of what I know I learned standing in your office doorway at 7:30 a.m. And your book is a real gift to the journalism community!

    Reply
  7. Thanks for all the great info here. I will be back to read some more soon.

    Reply
  8. And, as it turns out, I was named after the girl who was murdered. My mother went to high school with her. I would never have known that if I hadn’t happened to stop in here and read your post. [ insert Twilight Zone music ] http://janeson59.com/?p=864

    Reply
  9. Kim C

     /  November 1, 2011

    Thanks for your thoughtful post on a tricky subject. This kind of dialogue is so important for journalists.

    A Pulitzer prize-winning writer from the St. Pete Times once told me that he almost always reads his long-form features to the subjects beforehand, both to catch inaccuracies of subtle detail and nuance, and also to prepare them for the story that will appear. He said he rarely encounters a problem.

    I agree that there are times when reading a story to a source before publication is not only acceptable, but respectful. I spent a year and a half following a high school senior who had cystic fibrosis, watching her relationship with her protective mother evolve as she transitioned to the freedom of college. I quoted her saying, “Sometimes I feel a little mad at God,” and I was worried that this quote might generate a negative reaction from her conservative Christian community. Neither the girl nor her mother asked me to change a word. But I’m pretty sure it was better for them to hear me read it over the phone than to read it in print.

    On the matter of not running a story that might negatively impact a family member, that’s tough. A mentor of mine told me that the subject of one of his stories, who had been convicted of an ugly crime, told him, “If you run this story, I’ll kill myself.” My mentor ran the story. The man committed suicide. My mentor didn’t regret running the story, and I don’t criticize him for it. But I don’t know if I could have made that choice.

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  November 6, 2011

      Wow, Kim, that is some tough stuff you describe — and so little talked about in our profession. Our Dart conference this week was all about these kinds of dilemmas, and I ate it up. Alex Kotlowitz, who spends years with subjects, said he doesn’t read beforehand but admitted later that he does read sections and goes over material over and over with subjects before he writes. The New Yorker magazine fact-checkers always call and go over quotes, so in effect that is a kind of read-through ahead of time as well, and it seems to me you’d wanna have everything just right as well as out in the open BEFORE the fact-checker calls. He says he always has his notebook present so the subject doesn’t forget why he’s there — not to be a friend (though, admittedly, he says that line always blurs) but a reporter. Can’t wait to catch up on phone, Beth

      Reply
  1. I just found out that my mother named me after a murdered girl | @janeson59
  2. In memory of the girl I was named after | @janeson59

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