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American Journalism Review
The Intervention Dilemma  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1998

The Intervention Dilemma   

A powerful Los Angeles Times series on the mistreatment of children by their drug-addicted parents spotlights an ethical quandary : When should journalists shed their observer status and go for help?

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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THE OBSERVATIONS AND PHOTOGRAGHS two Los Angeles Times journalists brought back from the front lines of American poverty are as frightening as images from war.
Throughout last summer, reporter Sonia Nazario and photographer Clarence Williams watched as children were endangered and neglected time and time again by their drug-addicted parents.
In one family, a three-year-old girl lived an itinerant life in deplorable conditions, moving from garage to crack house to addict's apartment, going 24 hours without eating. Her weight dropped 10 percent in one week. Her teeth were brushed ``with a toothbrush she is sharing with [her mother], who is HIV positive'' and has bleeding gums, read the cutline of a photo showing a man with bloody sores brushing the little girl's teeth. While her mother scores drugs, the toddler ``passes the time the kitchen, where she steps on shards from a broken jar,'' Nazario wrote, observing while the toddler ``hobbles to the sofa, sits down and digs two pieces of glass from her bleeding feet.''
Nazario witnessed the drug-chasing mother ``smack [her three-year-old] hard, then tell her to stop crying and wash her face.'' She observed the mother so ``intent on smoking the last crumbs of crack, she gently lowers [her daughter] onto a mattress moist with urine and semen. As mom inhales, [the toddler] sleeps, her pink and white sundress absorbing the fluids of unknown grownups.''
Titled ``Orphans of Addiction,'' the two-part series ran in November and included a second-day profile of a drug treatment program for addicts and their children. The first day focused primarily on two families and three children, with snapshots of a few others, illuminating a dark and shameful part of America.
In another family, Nazario watched while a drug-addicted father ``hauls back and lets his hand fly'' to discipline eight-year-old Kevin's ``destructive hijinks,'' she wrote, behavior that in the past had included poking a pencil in a girl's eye and biting a teacher's ankle. Kevin told Nazario his dad beats him regularly, and has deliberately kept him and his 10-year-old sister Ashley out of school during the previous four months. The children often eat one meal of rice a day and go for weeks without bathing, since their tub, Nazario observed, ``brims with dirty clothes alive with fleas.''
After months of 10- and 14-hour days spent observing the chaos and suffering in these children's lives, Nazario interjected herself into the published story only once: ``As a reporter rises to leave,'' she wrote, three-year-old Tamika stands. ``Looking up, she asks simply: `Are you taking me with you?' ''
The toddler's question highlights a dilemma for journalists: Should reporters and photographers intervene when they witness a child being harmed over a period of time? Should they notify authorities, or look the other way for the greater good of the story?
Nazario, Williams and editor Joel Sappell stand by the long-held journalistic tenet that reporters and photographers must remain ``a fly on the wall,'' say Nazario and Sappell. ``We wanted to tell a story that was real, that held up this big, giant mirror to society and said, `Take a look at this! This is real serious stuff. And it's a world you've never been in before, and we're not going to tamper with the world,' '' Sappell says. ``There's no characterization in those stories of right and wrong, good and bad. It's just what it is.''
That paradigm may work most of the time in journalism, say media ethicists and legal and social welfare experts who reviewed the Times' series, but not when it comes to watching powerless children suffer, especially over a period of months. While the story graphically portrays the horror of the children's lives it chronicled, it also raises questions about the Times' ethical judgments and about the paper's decision to reveal nothing to readers about how editors dealt with the moral dilemmas the story presented.
As soon as reporters search for mistreatment, as long as they know ahead of time they will find suffering, they become obligated to confront the question of how much abuse a few children have to endure to serve the story's purpose, many experts say. To simply ``hold up a mirror to society'' is ``outrageous,'' says Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor who specializes in child welfare, abuse and neglect. ``The only moral defense possible for not calling social services is that they felt they were accomplishing some greater social purpose with these articles. If they're just trying to hold up a mirror to society, then how do they escape their responsibility as members of the public to help helpless children?''
Around the country, ethicists, child welfare experts and journalists on the social issues beat had complicated reactions to the Times' series. Some were outraged, arguing the paper's attitude extends the notion of objectivity to a dangerous extreme, not only harming children but eroding readers' faith in the media.
Editors should ``draw the line at common sense. How many times do you have to see a kid being beaten?'' asks Jane Daugherty, a projects editor at the Detroit News who was a 1994 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her columns on abused children. ``If you sit there for three months and watch, what you're saying is that what you have to document at length is more important than those individual children.''
Others had mixed emotions and no clear answers about when, where and how to draw the line. ``I believe I would have done what the Times did,'' says Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News. ``I can see not calling authorities. I can see the thinking that writing about these children in a moving way would yield longer lasting results.''
At least four months elapsed from the time the Times found the children to the day after the series began, when the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services quickly located three-year-old Tamika, put her in foster care and notified police, who arrested her mother and had her jailed. The other two children had moved with their father to central California before the Times published its exposŽ.
``What is the obligation of the journalists in this situation? Why can't you write the story and still protect the kids? The public would still be informed,'' says Michael Nash, presiding judge of the Los Angeles County juvenile court. ``The journalists clearly knew [Tamika] was in significant danger. Why let this situation ride for months, print your story and then take credit for children's services locating the kid--which is basically what the Times has done in subsequent articles. That's despicable. By the time the story came out, that kid could have been dead.''
After the ``Orphans'' series ran, the photographer and reporter were featured on television news shows, talked about in living rooms and offices, in hundreds of phone calls the Times received on a special hotline and in nearly 200 responses on an Internet site created for the series. Times Publisher Mark H. Willes says the series was ``spectacular'' and ``compelling. This is one of the kinds of stories we want to do and have done and will continue to do.''
While some readers writing on the Web site predicted a Pulitzer Prize for the Times, about one in five demanded an explanation. ``How could you two look yourselves in the mirror every night as you slept safely and cleanly?'' wrote Joe Soriano. ``We know why, because if you had helped and gotten these children the help they desperately needed, there would have been no story.''
The ethical questions raised by the Times' stories ``are enormously useful,'' says Steven M. Gorelick, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, whose expertise is press coverage of crimes against children. When journalists cover a story of such magnitude, he says, they are obliged to confront the repercussions ahead of time, to remember ``the moral obligations we have as human beings. Journalists have to--they must--ask the question: Can I do something to alleviate the suffering that's put in front of me? Otherwise, what's the point of being there? What's the point of being a human being?''
Social workers considered Tamika's plight serious enough to immediately remove her from her mother. But Times editors concluded the children profiled weren't in imminent danger, says Leo Wolinsky, the paper's managing editor for news. ``If you decide to go to authorities when you witness abuse, you'd have to call off the story before getting started,'' he says. ``The result is there'd be no investigation, the kids would still be in danger and the public wouldn't know about it.''

THE IDEA FOR ``Orphans of Addiction'' came from Senior Metro Projects Editor Joel Sappell, 44. As a reporter, Sappell exposed the underside of Scientology and won a George Polk Award for his investigation of illegal intelligence gathering by the Los Angeles Police Department. As an editor, he helped preside over coverage of the '92 Los Angeles riots and the '94 earthquake, both earning the paper Pulitzers for spot news. He also directed coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and the story that helped discredit the San Jose Mercury News' controversial ``Dark Alliance'' story.
On the ``Orphans'' series, Sappell's vision was clear from the beginning: He wanted to ``find out what it's like for children living in an alcoholic or drug-addicted family.'' He tapped urban affairs writer Sonia Nazario, 37, a Wall Street Journal veteran and '94 Polk Award winner for a series on hunger; and photographer Clarence Williams, 31, in his first year as a full time Times staff member. Sappell, Nazario and Williams focused their search for children in Long Beach, a port city of 425,000 about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. ``We didn't choose South L.A. because then the kids would be all black. We didn't choose East L.A. because then it would be all Latino. In Long Beach, it's mixed. We don't want to further the belief that there's this born pathology within people of color to use drugs,'' Williams says.
For more than a month late last spring, Williams and Nazario talked to social welfare experts, getting a sense of what to expect. It took several days of sitting in the social services office of a local university, approaching about 50 parents, before Nazario settled on Theodora Triggs, a 34-year-old heroin addict, and her three-year-old daughter Tamika. Triggs introduced Nazario to a drug-addicted father named Calvin Holloman and his two children, eight-year-old Kevin and 10-year-old Ashley. Both families became the story's focus; both parents are white.
``My only instruction was: Don't tamper with reality,'' Sappell says. ``That was the only thing I think I was very clear about. We're making a documentary here, in some ways. Don't intrude into it. Because that changes it.''
The three had informal meetings whenever necessary to discuss obstacles, mostly related to gaining and maintaining access to the families. They rarely felt the need to bring higher ranking editors into discussions, though Sappell says he did make ``the higher ups here aware of what was going on, that it could be potentially a very good, important story.''
Throughout the summer, Nazario and Williams saw scenes out of a modern day Dickens novel: ``Children as young as two or three wander the streets alone. Kindergartners sometimes panhandle for food money outside grocery stores. Mother-daughter prostitute teams walk on nearby Pacific Coast Highway,'' Nazario wrote. She heard the same prayer nightly from Ashley, who had been beaten and punched in the face by her father in the past: ``Just once give me something good. Please, make life get better.'' In another scene, Nazario watched Tamika, dressed in a filthy nightgown, jumping up and down on a bed, her exuberance melting into cries for ``Mommy! Mommy!'' as she realizes her mother has left her alone in the apartment again ``without so much as good-bye.''
The first-day story, told in six pages of text and photographs, was ``emotional, unvarnished, about the little moments. Not the grotesque abuse, which exists, for sure,'' Sappell says. ``If you know what the universe of abuse is--and if abuse is the toddler being raped by the drug dealer--if that's abuse, then what is this? I don't know. I guess you kind of have to figure that out yourself. I don't want to put labels on it, in a way, because I think it's for everybody to kind of decide for themselves what it is.''
Unlike medical professionals, social workers and teachers, journalists have no legal obligation to report child abuse to authorities. Nazario was never ``conflicted about our purpose,'' she says: ``To show a portrait to society of what kids go through when they grow up in homes where there's substance abuse. I think you would not be a human being if you didn't go into these situations, seeing some of these things, and not coming home with a knot in your stomach.
``On most days, I just dealt with it as this is part of getting to this goal, which I think is a very good goal, explaining to society that this is where a lot of our problems begin,'' Nazario says. ``I thought it would not only help in terms of that, but also might help these particular kids. And so on most days, I felt very strongly that I wore my journalist's hat, and that if I intervened in any way, I would change that situation, and I would not paint a portrait of reality.''
Though neither Nazario nor Williams has children, Sappell does. ``And believe me,'' he says, ``when I got home at night after hearing some of these stories and seeing the pictures, I'd give my kids an extra hug.''
To help cope with the suffering he was witnessing, Williams says he talked to his editor, coworkers and friends. He has no clear recollection of what advice they gave him, but he remembers that ``they listened. It helped a lot. I always tried to remember the greater good that will come of it. Sonia and I would have these talks--but we never came up with specifics--about how much we were willing to watch and how far we were willing to go to do this.''
They decided they could ``handle watching parents do drugs in front of their kids. And I remembered getting spankings for some of the silly things I did. So I had no qualms with--I'm not into sparing the rod. But at the same time, I'm not into abuse. I'm not going to watch a kid getting beat to death or beat down.''
At one point Williams did intervene, when he saw that a baby, left alone in a room, was about to bite down on an electrical cord. ``I made one frame, but at that point, it's crazy. I just ended up holding the baby that afternoon,'' he says. ``At some point you've got to be human.''
Nazario, too, intervened, in an experience she chose not to share with her readers. In the story, she refers obliquely to ``a trip earlier that week to a medical clinic for several infected spider bites'' where she discovered Tamika ``had lost 10 percent of her weight in a week.''
There was more to it than that.
Before the little girl fell ill, Nazario had established the ground rules, she says. She told the families: ``I'm not driving you anywhere; I'm not giving you money. I can't do any of these things, and I will not do any of these things for you.'' On one or two occasions, when the children said they were hungry, she took them to McDonald's for an interview, as she would any other source, she says. One early morning, Nazario arrived to find Tamika screaming in pain. She said she ``didn't think twice'' when the girl's mother asked her for a ride to the hospital. ``I got into the car and drove her.''
The photographer remained behind. ``Sonia asked me if I was going to come along,'' Williams remembers. ``And I'm like, `Well, no, I'm not.' For me, photojournalistically, I can't really photograph a reporter driving her to the hospital. Now, she's part of the story. If she doesn't drive her, she would have to walk. Now, if she was going to walk to the hospital, which wasn't that far away, I would photograph her carrying her daughter, or however she's going to get this girl who couldn't walk to the hospital. Then that's her dealing with that situation of getting her daughter to the hospital. Now I can understand that she wanted to take the woman and her sick child to the hospital. Like I said, I'm glad she [Tamika's mother] didn't ask me. I don't know what I would have done at that point. But what I do know is that if I would have driven her to the hospital, I'm not going to drive to the hospital and then photograph her. That's a big fat no. You don't do that. Because now you're part of the story. It's the Golden Rule.''
As much as possible, in reporting the story, the reporter and photographer say they stuck to their rules. In the writing, Nazario and Sappell broke a few. ``We decided to write it in the present tense. We [wrote] it using first names, which is very unusual,'' Sappell says. ``It's done to personalize it. We were moving into people's lives and that takes a great measure of care. Not to be disruptive. Not to change what transpires in front of you. Not to interfere with it at all.'' The biggest challenge for Nazario and Williams, he says, ``was not asking questions.''
Nazario, for instance, says she never asked the emergency room physician about Tamika's chronic neglect or tipped health care workers to the girl's predicament. The story cites neighbors unwilling to alert authorities to the three-year-old's suffering, ``fearful that she might end up in an abusive foster home,'' and quotes Tamika's 70-year-old babysitter calling social welfare workers ``baby snatchers.''
But the stories never explored the neighbors' disdain for child protective services; and Nazario never questioned authorities about their alleged neglect of the children chronicled because, Sappell explains, ``it was not a system story in its conception or its execution. The problem of children's services is not new.'' The Times had already done ``stuff on the problems of foster care, group homes, blah, blah, blah. There's been a lot of stuff on that. It was more of an issue of just wanting to let the public know about the living conditions of these children.''
Maintaining access to the families was such a great concern, Sappell and Nazario say, they didn't call child welfare officials to verify claims, published in the story, that ``social workers questioned [Kevin's father] after noticing bruises and scratches on the boy. They later visited the house at least three times, neighbors and others say, but allowed the children to remain.'' Instead, Nazario says, she spent time with the families ``sitting and being a fly on the wall, which is different from what reporters normally do, which is, continually ask a lot of questions.''
The series' two stories took about two months to write and edit, Nazario says. When the first one appeared on November 16 ``it was like a bomb went off,'' Sappell recalls, ``people wanting to help, saying, `Where can I adopt these kids?' `How do I become a foster parent?' '' Within 24 hours, child abuse reports had increased 20 percent, and social workers had found Tamika Triggs and placed her in a foster home, the Times reported in a front page story. Because Calvin Holloman had moved his two children several months earlier to central California, Los Angeles County social services had no jurisdiction over the family. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ``directed the children's services department to report back next week on ways to better identify children of substance abusing families.'' Nazario quoted the director of the Department of Children and Family Services, who said the series ``will forever alter the landscape of how people see children who are abused and neglected.''
`` `Orphans of Addiction' are the Children of Us All,'' a Times editorial announced on November 18. ``The first step,'' the paper said, ``is finding and protecting these children.''




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