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

The Intervention Dilemma   

Continued

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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BY NOW THE TIMES resumed referring to the drug-addicted parents by their last names. ``Triggs initially was charged with one felony count of willful cruelty to a child but pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of child endangerment,'' the paper reported three days after the series ran.
``A couple hundred calls'' came in from the public, says Times Director of Communications Laura Morgan. ``The vast majority of callers wanted to help; a few didn't understand how [the journalists] could have continued reporting without notifying authorities. We explained that while it did pose a certain ethical dilemma, the purpose of the story was to help all of the children.''
Amid the praise, some readers raised angry questions: ``If I'm reading the paper correctly,'' wrote Betty Ann Downing of Long Beach, ``apparently nothing was done to assist these children until the social workers learned about it at the same time as the rest of us. Is this the Times' contribution to `finding and protecting these children' that it editorializes about?'' From Carol A. Richardson of Los Angeles: ``The article proved...that the reporter and photographer would go to any length for a story, including allowing innocent children to go hungry and to remain at risk of severe neglect and physical and sexual abuse without contacting proper authorities.''
In a November 21 article in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Department of Children and Family Services and the police said they planned to do nothing differently as a result of the series; police and social workers blamed the Times for failing to alert them sooner. ``Our agency is only as effective as the referrals it gets,'' says children and family services spokesman Schuyler Sprowles. ``We're not omnipresent.''
Sappell explained in an interview why no one felt compelled to intervene. ``Sometimes you don't know where the line is until you reach it,'' he says. ``If we had seen something that was over the line--the line which you don't know [you've crossed] until you see it, till your gut tells you--then we would have called somebody.'' Witnessing child sexual abuse, for example, or knowing a pregnant woman was abusing drugs, would constitute crossing the line, he says. ``But,'' he adds, ``that's not really our role.... What we're really about is exposing things, then letting the appropriate authorities fix them.''
On January 11, nearly two months after ``Orphans of Addiction'' ran, the Times published a front page follow-up, a much more traditional report on troubles within the Department of Children and Family Services. Though the follow-up's lead included allegations that Tamika Triggs had been reported to authorities numerous times, it focused primarily on chronic problems endemic to the department long before the Times discovered Tamika, Kevin and Ashley. The January 11 account had little of the pathos of the original series, but it pushed the Board of Supervisors into substantive action for the first time. It voted to hire 300 social workers and ordered a management audit of the Department of Children and Family Services. Ironically, the most significant change in the system ``was not as a result of the original `Orphans' story,'' says Sprowles, ``but as a consequence'' of the more conventional follow-up article.
By early February, the Times reported Kevin and Ashley were in central California, living with their father, who only a few days before had begun drug treatment. Tamika was still in foster care, occasionally visiting her mother at a residential drug rehabilitation clinic. And the Board of Supervisors had yet to act on task force recommendations to examine the problem of drug-addicted parents.
The Times' failure to examine the child welfare system in depth until two months after the original series ran strains the paper's credibility with readers, says Arlene Morgan, the Philadelphia Inquirer's assistant managing editor for readership. ``When you talk about ethics, that includes completeness. This story wasn't complete. You don't do a voyeuristic story, drop it in the paper and wait for the reaction,'' then expose the system's flaws two months later, she says. ``It doesn't take two months to do a turnaround on a story like this.''

LIKE MORGAN, MANY JOURNALISTS who read ``Orphans of Addiction'' found it graphic and powerful, but they also questioned how editors handled the ethical dilemmas they encountered. Do you simply observe the suffering of children and eventually report on it? Is there a point when you should take direct action?
The Times called what it found ``neglect.'' Marc Parent, child abuse investigator turned journalist and author of the book ``Turning Stones: My Days and Nights with Children at Risk,'' wonders how anyone could call it anything but abuse. ``That's a no-brainer. If they're smart enough to be reporters, they're smart enough to know abuse when they see it,'' he says. ``We need to have different [journalistic] standards when it comes to kids. Because they're totally helpless, cut off from people who can help them.''
When editor Jane Daugherty, then at the Detroit Free Press, found one of her reporters had witnessed incidents similar to what was reported in the Times series, she called authorities ``myself, that day, the minute I found out about it,'' she says. ``Then we did stories about how long it took social services to respond.'' Journalists can do both: Write a compelling story and immediately remove the children from danger, she says. ``You don't have to take three months of watching someone being abused.''
The dilemma is not new, says Daugherty, who has been covering social welfare issues for 22 years. In the early '80s, before Washington Post editors discovered the eight-year-old drug addict profiled in ``Jimmy's World'' was fiction, they refused to cooperate with authorities who wanted to find the child. Then in 1989, in an acclaimed Post series, reporter Michele Norris and photographer Dudley M. Brooks spent more than two months virtually living with Dooney Waters, the six-year-old son of a drug addict.
Though Norris never witnessed suffering as severe as what was chronicled by the Times, during the course of covering Dooney, she says she had ``lots of soul searching conversations with my editors. We wanted to maintain journalistic integrity, but we bent the rules in other ways. We kept him out of harm's way, and we gave him food so he wouldn't get hungry.'' The story also questioned teachers and social workers, examining their involvement in the boy's life and explored the failures of the system designed to protect children like Dooney. ``No mother ever gave birth to a journalist. You're a human first. You bring your humanity to your story,'' says Norris, now an ABC News correspondent. But, she adds, ``there are no set rules, no clear cut lines.''
Not so, say media ethicists. ``Morality is about drawing lines. If you refuse to draw any lines, that perhaps is the most immoral position to take,'' says Michael Josephson, an ethicist used as a consultant by various newspapers, including the Orange County Register, where he helped editors and reporters wend their way through a thicket of ethical problems that arose from a 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning story about fertility doctors secretly stealing women's eggs. To avoid appearing arrogant, he says, journalists need to explain the ground rules to readers. ``It's morally defensible to say, `This is who we are and why we did it.' But the ground rules should be provided, so that the L.A. Times acknowledges that they thought about it ahead of time. State it, and let the public decide whether the rules are acceptable.''
Withholding information can break faith with readers, Josephson adds. ``Journalists really do wrestle with these issues, but since the public only sees what's published, they never know what went into the struggle. When they don't see [the struggle], the public can only assume journalists don't care. That sort of arrogant trust will not cut it anymore with the public, or with many journalists who I find are becoming increasingly more cynical with the decisions made by their news organizations, because they know how business-driven these decisions have become.''
If the public were asked what it wanted the Times to do, ``my opinion is the public would say, `Don't let the children get hurt,' '' he says. ``If I'm right, then the variance between what the public says is right and moral and what the newspaper says is right and moral leaves the media with a huge credibility gap. The only way the media can justify that gap is to say: `We know what's best.' Where does the media come off developing a different standard of decency?''
At the very least, he says, the news organization should explain its rationale to readers. ``You can write what you want, but at least you're accountable, you've made a choice. As long as journalists get to stand by unwritten, informal standards, no one has to be formally accountable. That's irresponsible.''
Editors at the Times decided against publishing an explanation of how the story was reported or why journalists didn't intervene to help the children, Sappell says. ``I felt very committed to keeping ourselves out of [the story] as much as we could,'' says Sappell. ``I didn't want anything to detract in any way from the power of the pieces we were trying to present to the public. The whole concept from the beginning was: Don't intervene. Let life unfold.''
Nazario agrees. ``The story was not about us or about ethical questions. The story was about these kids and what they face when they're growing up in homes with substance abuse. Journalists should not focus stories on themselves. They should focus on the story.''
The paper will submit the series and photographs for Pulitzer Prize consideration, says Publisher Willes. Willes, Wolinsky and Sappell say they have no regrets about how the story was handled. There is one thing Willes says he would contemplate doing differently in the future: He would explain to readers how journalists struggle with ethical questions they encounter while reporting. ``I think doing something to allow readers to better understand the very real issues that we face and have to work through--I think readers would find that fascinating.''

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