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 AJR  Letters

From AJR,   May 1998  issue

Letters to the editor about "Orphans of Addiction"   


By Unknown
     


THE MARCH ISSUE OF AJR SQUANDERED a valuable chance to explore one of the most delicate and complicated ethical questions confronted by journalists: When, if ever, should reporters become an arm of law enforcement after witnessing potentially harmful or unlawful behavior during the course of a story?
Unfortunately for your readers, Susan Paterno's piece, ``The Intervention Dilemma," was short on insight and long on simplistic second-guessing. Her target: the Los Angeles Times' 1997 series ``Orphans of Addiction," which chronicled the unique despair encountered by hundreds of thousands of children living in substance-abusing families.
The series brought nationwide attention to this largely hidden problem. On the local level, the pieces jarred policymakers into exploring sweeping reforms of Los Angeles' child welfare system. On a more personal level, one of the families profiled in the story--a heroin-addicted mother and her three-year-old daughter--has undergone a magical recovery because of the newspaper's intimate account of their plight. The mother today is thriving in a rehabilitation center while her daughter is in a loving foster home. The mother repeatedly has expressed her deep gratitude to the paper for helping her find a sober life.
None of this--neither the systemic reforms nor the redeemed lives of a mother and child--would have happened without the Times' story.
But Paterno, in posing the rhetorical question of whether the paper should have intervened with authorities on behalf of families profiled in the series, failed not only to explore these impressive results but loaded her piece with criticisms. Worse, the Times was never given the opportunity to respond to those criticisms.
Although Paterno repeatedly assured the reporter, photographer and editor on the ``Orphans" series that she was committed to a balanced discussion of the important ethical issues it posed, her printed words spoke otherwise. They did not include, for example, a single positive quote about the series from anyone outside the Times. This despite her concession that the story was widely praised. Even rookie journalists know enough to include a couple of those positive voices in the interest of fairness.
What's more, there was no discussion of the potentially serious ramifications of journalists being perceived in the community as an extension of government agencies, especially in a region where mistrust of officialdom runs high.
In our case, had reporter Sonia Nazario or photographer Clarence Williams turned in the subjects of their stories, they would have been quickly tagged as snitches, losing access and their ability to bring this American tragedy to light.
As Nazario, Williams and project editor Joel Sappell repeatedly told Paterno, they had seen nothing to suggest the children were in imminent danger of being abused to a degree that demanded official intervention. If Nazario and Williams had seen severe abuse, they most certainly would have acted.
Among her other omissions, Paterno failed to note that the stories were intentionally laced with information that made it easy for authorities to track down the children and their parents, including their full names and whether they were receiving welfare checks or other government assistance.
Here at the Times, we welcome constructive debate about the ethical questions surrounding our series. We understood from the outset that the project would be controversial but were willing to press ahead because of the great public interest we correctly believed it would serve. Your readers can judge for themselves by simply calling up the series and follow-up stories on our Web site at www.latimes.com/orphans/.
Of course, we were not expecting a puff piece from AJR, but we are mystified why a publication that positions itself as a media watchdog would itself engage in such unfair coverage, perhaps discouraging other reporters across the country from tackling sensitive topics in ways that stray from the conventional.

Leo C. Wolinsky
Managing Editor, News
The Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles, California

I WAS PLEASED WHEN SUSAN PATERNO told me she was doing a story for AJR on coverage of abused children and some of the dilemmas that coverage can present for journalists. I was appalled, however, to discover the context in which Paterno inappropriately used my quotes.
As I told her when she first called me, I had not read the L.A. Times' ``Orphans of Addiction" series prior to our conversation. The context of the second quote is downright misleading. I did not refer at any time to what the L.A. Times had done or how they made their decisions. What I discussed was a decision I made when one of the ``Children First" reporters at the Detroit Free Press witnessed small children subjected to ``serious beatings, burning with cigarettes and being thrown against a wall in a crack house."
The reporter came to me immediately, we discussed what she had seen and decided to notify child abuse workers at the Department of Social Services. As the editor in that situation, I told Paterno, ``I called the authorities myself, that day, the minute I found out about it."
When I later read the graphic and enormously compelling ``Orphans of Addiction" pieces that the L.A. Times had published, I saw no similar descriptions of the abuse my reporter witnessed. Therefore it was unfair and inaccurate to characterize what my reporter saw in Paterno's words as ``incidents similar to what was reported in the Times series."
My first quote in her AJR piece was also in response to being asked if I would allow a reporter working for me to observe beatings of small children for three months without reporting the abuse. Again, I was not referring to the L.A. Times reports, but responding to a hypothetical question about whether a reporter witnessing serious abuse should wait for months before seeking help.
I went to great lengths to explain to Paterno that each case must be considered on the spot. She unfortunately omitted what I said about how I have come to decide such questions: If a child is in imminent danger of death or physical harm, including sexual assault, there is no room for debate about whether or how soon to call the authorities: Call immediately. Those are not the conditions I later read about in ``Orphans of Addiction."
I would hope as journalists we could begin discussing these important issues without beginning from the point of pissing all over courageous journalists like Sonia Nazario and Clarence Williams. They went into dangerous situations for months to report on children at extreme risk. I wish that there were many more newspapers like the L.A. Times who commit significant space, massive resources and enormous effort to document the plight of children like the ``Orphans of Addiction."
The real tragedy today is that the vast majority of American newspapers don't ever have to face difficult decisions about when to call for help for a child. That's because they make the worst decision of all: to ignore the plight of hundreds of thousands of American children who are orphans of addictions, dire poverty or parental dysfunction. That is a huge tragedy, the one that I hoped Susan Paterno would address in the pages of AJR.

Jane Daugherty
Projects Editor
The Detroit News
Detroit, Michigan


SUSAN PATERNO RESPONDS:

BY CHARACTERIZING "THE INTERVENTION DILEMMA" as ``unfair," Leo C. Wolinsky chooses to blame the messenger for the message. The story was never intended to be an assessment of the quality of the ``Orphans of Addiction" series, but instead was a critical examination of what many journalists consider to be a serious ethical dilemma: When should journalists shed their observer status and help suffering children? As for Wolinsky's charge that the Times had no opportunity to respond, the contrary was true: Numerous follow-ups were done with Joel Sappell, Sonia Nazario and Clarence Williams. Wolinsky was also interviewed and was quoted explaining the Times' position.
Sappell, Nazario and Williams were all quoted saying they did not believe the children were abused or in imminent danger, despite the Times' journalists having witnessed a three year old sharing a toothbrush with her HIV-infected mother, going 24 hours without food, being left alone to remove broken glass from her bleeding feet and sleeping on a mattress moist with urine and semen, incidents that prompted child protective services to arrest the toddler's mother for abuse. In nearly 50 interviews with journalists and child abuse experts, I could find no one willing to praise the Times' decision to wait months to report the suffering it saw. Jerry Ceppos, San Jose Mercury News executive editor, was the lone supporter; his remarks were included prominently in the story.
On January 23, after Jane Daugherty had read the L.A. Times' piece on the Web, I asked if she wanted to change what she had said in our initial interview. Her response was: ``No. Most definitely I think those children were being actively abused, and in some cases their lives were in danger. As either a reporter or an editor, I would have felt an obligation to get them help promptly. When you have a kid like Tamika clearly ingesting some of the drugs by inhaling what the mother was using, that's abuse, that's imminent danger. I think journalists cannot give up their responsibilities as citizens. In cases where there is imminent danger. I think journalists cannot give up their responsibilities as citizens. In cases where there is imminent danger to a child, we have to act first as citizens."
In the initial interview, Daugherty was read passages from the Times' series and asked questions about those passages. She said a Free Press reporter had seen a boy ``being hit and deprived of food. He was kept out of school deliberately." The Times chronicled an almost identical situation.
In three separate conversations, Daugherty never described Nazario and Williams as ``courageous journalists," nor did she applaud the Times' series or mention the objections she now raises. If she had, those views would have been included in the story.


More on ``Orphans..."

``HOW COULD YOU TWO LOOK YOURSELVES in the mirror every night as you slept safely and cleanly?" Joe Soriano asks in ``The Intervention Dilemma." ``We know why, because if you had helped and gotten these children the help they desperately needed, there would have been no story."
At what point were we elected society's inquisitors? Where is our cut from Social Services? Are we the nation's quality of life Gestapo? Shall we investigate crimes for the police? I feel suddenly short-staffed and grossly underqualified.
Powerless as the public may feel in the face of such tragedy, the reporters did not invent it. This abuse, sickness, these deaths, had been going on a long time before this series. And until the public gets its priorities in line and decides--with its tax money--that these are situations we're not going to tolerate, this abuse, this sickness, these deaths will continue.
Public awareness is going to go a lot further in addressing this problem, in the long run, than any amount of direct intervention would have. The easy holier-than-thou superiority of a public otherwise demonstrably uninterested in the welfare of drug addicts' children makes me physically ill. Just because Clark Kent is a journalist doesn't make us all Superman.
In the end, we can do no more than Williams and Nazario did in this shining example.
Congratulations to the both of them, and may we follow their lead in flipping over rocks both we and our comfortably ignorant public have been content to leave unflipped.

Terry J. Aman
Reporter, Devils Lake Daily Journal
Devils Lake, North Dakota

AS A LAYPERSON INTERESTED IN THE world of journalism, I was surprised by the Los Angeles Times' lack of social conscience when I read the ``Orphans of Addiction" series. I understand the Times' attempt to be the ``fly on the wall" and ``hold a giant mirror to society." However, I believe they have an obligation to involve social service authorities when children's lives are endangered. What happened to the children whose father moved them to central California? Was the Times absolved of all responsibility because the family left the Los Angeles area code?
The Times' behavior was clearly geared to their own good, not the good of the families. The series was a transparent effort to win a Pulitzer Prize. The Times' manipulative ``present tense" style and graphic photography were geared solely to earn them national attention. Theodora Triggs' recovery seemed to be a byproduct of the greater goal.
I applaud Susan Paterno's fair analysis of what appeared to me as unfair reporting. The ``fly on the wall" seemed to be rubbing its hands together hoping to win journalism's crown jewel. Had I been in Paterno's place, I would not have been as giving.

Elizabeth Sayre
Beverly Hills, California

``ORPHANS OF ADDICTION" WAS A POWERFUL portrayal of the horrible lives of some inner city children in Southern California. As a pediatrician familiar with this unfortunate problem, I found the series poignant and accurate. Nevertheless I need to comment on some issues discussed in the piece.
The Times' series states that many professionals including teachers, police and doctors fail to report suspected child abuse and neglect. This charge, which alleges serious legal violations, is of doubtful accuracy and lacks documented sources. Teachers, police and physicians are repeatedly advised and trained to report all cases of possible abuse to the authorities. Pediatricians are on notice that their licenses and professional careers can be jeopardized by failure to report.
This begs the question, ``When should journalists shed their observer status and go for help?" The Times journalists contend that they were merely ``flies on the wall" observing children being starved and beaten for months. They had no obligation to intervene, they contend. As a pediatrician I find this attitude very disappointing. This alienated indifference to the suffering of children, while seemingly not illegal (for a reporter) is certainly amoral.
This attitude is unfortunately reminiscent of much that occurs in high places these days. What I did is not strictly illegal so it's OK. Several years ago, President Kennedy would cite Dante's ``Inferno": The lowest places in hell were reserved for those who were indifferent to the suffering of others.

Jeffrey S. Penso, MD
President, Southern California Chapter
American Academy of Pediatrics
Culver City, California

THE ONLY THING MORE DISTURBING THAN NAZARIO, Williams and Sappell's inaction on behalf of the children in ``Orphans of Addiction" is the startlingly primitive understanding of child abuse they display in AJR's follow-up.
Sappell says the series chronicled neglect rather than abuse, but child endangerment is the same no matter what you happen to call it. Abuse, he says, is ``a child being raped by the drug addict," but apparently not a toddler left home alone who has to ``hobble to a sofa to dig two pieces of glass from her bleeding feet." Williams says he wouldn't ``watch a kid getting beat to death," but he'll take a picture of a child sharing a toothbrush with her HIV-positive mother whose gums are bleeding. Nazario will stand by as a three year old goes 24 hours without eating, even after learning that the child had lost 10 percent of her weight in one week. ``If we had seen something over the line," Sappell said, ``...we would have called somebody."
I have a news flash for Mr. Sappell: Three year olds don't lose weight--they gain weight. Starving a child is over the line. As were many of the scenarios reported in the series.
Sappell and Nazario justify months of inaction by stating that the goal was not to help one child but to help many by holding up a ``big, giant mirror to society." But how do they expect to move a reader to action with black and white images, when the actual flesh and blood failed to move them to act? Sappell was moved to act, but in a way that illustrates an exploitative aspect of the coverage. ``When I got home at night after hearing some of these stories and seeing the pictures," he says, ``I'd give my kids an extra hug."
It's doubtful Sappell would allow his children to endure any measure of suffering for a possible greater good. And if it isn't okay for his kids, if it isn't okay for mine, then why should it be okay for Ashley, Kevin, Tamika or any other child?

Marc Parent
Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania