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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

Telling Authorities Before Publishing    


By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

During a yearlong investigation of the state's juvenile justice system, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Mary Hargrove uncovered numerous horrors at detention facilities: boys beaten and hogtied by staff, routine overcrowding in cells puddled with sewage, allegations of sexual assault. Convinced that kids faced further and imminent harm, Hargrove confronted state authorities two months before her series' publication in June--but faced harsh criticism for not releasing her information to the public sooner.

Her experience revives an ethical debate: Should a journalist intervene on behalf of a subject? If so, when? And how quickly should the press publish details it uncovers?

The probe that yielded "Juvenile Justice: The War Within" became public knowledge April 24, when Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) called a press conference and vowed to correct mistreatment he mentioned only in general terms. He credited Hargrove with bringing abuses to his attention and effectively alerted other reporters to the story.

After that, Hargrove, who joined the Little Rock paper in 1994 as an associate editor, recalls "getting e-mail and letters from people saying, 'Why are you withholding information?' "

The weekly Arkansas Times challenged Hargrove to produce her findings, suggesting that she owed the public information and that she'd struck a deal with the governor. "It was so demeaning to me. I was so sick," says Hargrove, who has an untreatable ailment that often leaves her exhausted. "When the Times called me, I told them I had this heart condition and I couldn't write this [series] fast enough and effectively enough [to prevent more harm to the youths]. That's why I had to go to somebody."

On April 6, Hargrove and two Democrat-Gazette editors had met with Department of Human Services Director Lee Frazier. Hargrove says Frazier discounted her findings. So, on April 15, Hargrove briefed DHS' chief counsel, who conducted her own investigation and called the governor's office.

Hargrove says she and top editors decided against rushing "Juvenile Justice" after the press conference "because I didn't have everything nailed down." They also feared running the information piecemeal would dilute its impact.

"Certainly Mary, I and Griffin Smith jr., the executive editor, would have loved to have gotten it in the paper earlier," says Managing Editor Bob Lutgen. "We tried to do our job as good citizens while we were still writing and researching the project."

"Juvenile Justice" debuted Sunday, June 14, with the remaining five parts published in Sunday/Monday installments through June 29. Huckabee closed the flawed main facility. Within weeks, Frazier resigned, and state legislators conducted hearings to determine who knew what and when.

Other Democrat-Gazette reporters handled breaking news linked to the case. Hargrove gave some direction but saved details for her later stories.

Arkansas Times Editor Max Brantley has been a relentless critic of Hargrove. He's written of her as "self-aggrandizing"; his paper, as early as June 5, prodded the reporter to show her hand.

"She did a tremendous amount of work on this... But a lot of her material could have been produced episodically and dramatically," possibly heading off some mistreatment, Brantley suggests.

Brantley accuses the Democrat-Gazette of "prize trolling," of waiting to assemble a package more appealing to journalism contest judges. Hargrove, whose investigations for the paper include identifying then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker as a central figure in Whitewater, ridicules the notion: "I didn't risk my life so I would get some piece of paper on the wall."

In October, her "Juvenile Justice" series tied for a first place award from the University of Maryland's Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families.

Hargrove's early intervention points up ethical dilemmas facing many reporters, such as the two Los Angeles Times journalists who investigated mistreatment of drug addicts' children. Several reporters and media gurus contacted by AJR support Hargrove's decision, even though it jeopardized the exclusivity of her story. "I don't see why there's a problem. By becoming a journalist who covers children's issues, you become a child advocate," says Jack Kresnak, who has covered juvenile justice for the Detroit Free Press since 1987.

Bob Steele, ethics director for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, cheers the Democrat-Gazette's willingness to intervene. But, "while I appreciate the necessity of fully vetting and crafting a story," he says, sometimes "the best response is to publish a story immediately, which tells the people responsible for the problems that they are being held accountable" and lets readers hold them responsible.

Steele suggests that alerting authorities of system abuse might be like telling the fox of problems in the henhouse. He recommends that journalists dealing with sensitive issues find a "rabbi"--a neutral party with expertise on the subject matter who could help the reporter "make better decisions on matters of vulnerability and potential interventions, on ethical responsibility."

Hargrove nonetheless remains proud of the series, which she calls "one of the best and worst things that ever happened to me.... When we printed, we had an overwhelming response. It was worth taking a couple of long weeks of grief."