Detachment or involvement?
You are a reporter for a large urban daily. The paper plans a major
series on poverty. Your editor assigns you to do an in-depth piece
on the effects of poverty on children, with special emphasis on
what happens when drug addiction becomes part of the story.
have identified several families willing to be subjects for the
story. Three families agree to be photographed — and identified
— and you spend four months with them, visiting their homes every
day and observing what goes on. You tell them your job is to be
an observer — a “fly on the wall” — so you can gather information
for this important series.
one home, you watch as a mother allows her three-year-old daughter
to go hungry for 24 hours. You see this same child living in a filthy
room, stepping on broken glass and sleeping on a urine-soaked mattress.
You know the mother is HIV-positive and you watch as she brushes
her daughter’s teeth with the same toothbrush she uses. You see
the mother hit the child with full force. You see the little girl
about to bite on an electrical cord. Her plight haunts you.
What do you do to
satisfy both your conscience and your responsibilities as a reporter?
the mother to the authorities so the girl will be removed from
this environment and placed in a foster home. Then write the
the story first, detailing your observations. After the story
has been published, notify the authorities, giving the mother’s
the story, but don’t identify the mother or child to police
or social service authorities. Remember, you are a reporter.
You’ve put the information in the newspaper. It’s not your job
to act as a police officer.
The real story
the summer of 1997, the Los Angeles Times sends reporter Sonia
Nazario and photographer Clarence Williams to chronicle the life of
children living in poverty with drug-addicted parents. Nazario and
Williams spend many hours at the homes of families and watch as addicted
parents neglect their children. From the beginning, the journalists
describe their jobs as observers — merely “flies on the wall."
They explain that they are not baby sitters and that they will not
give the families any money.
the story is published, hundreds of readers call to complain that
the reporters did nothing to help the suffering children. Many feel
the reporters immediately should have reported what they saw to
authorities. The parents, whose names are used in the story, are
later arrested, and the children go to foster homes. The powerful
series has a huge impact on readers, who call police to report other
child-abuse cases in their communities.
reporters merely observers? Or is there a time when reporters
should go for help?
would you have handled the story differently, if at all?
you have stopped the baby from biting on an electrical cord, as
Clarence Williams did? Would you have stopped the parents from
screaming at their children, as Clarence did not?
with permission, from “Media Ethics: Where Do You Draw the Line?”
by Rosalind G. Stark (Arlington, Va.: The Freedom Forum Newseum
Inc.), 1999, pp.33-34.