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.