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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

Determined to Report the Story   

Two journalists were so committed to revealing the killing of the “cursed” children of Ethiopia that they reported it on their own when their paper wouldn’t fund the project. They are being honored for the ethical approach they took to their work. Fri., May 11, 2012.

By Chelsea Boone
Chelsea Boone (cc_boone@yahoo.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

There is a saying that some of the greatest stories go untold. Reporter Matthew LaPlante and photographer Rick Egan made sure that the plight of the killing of "cursed" children in Ethiopia wasn't one of them.

Their work on the harrowing practice ran in Christianity Today, a monthly magazine, in August 2011 and on CNN.com three months later. On Thursday, May 17, they will receive the 2012 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

Egan, 53, a photographer for the Salt Lake Tribune, had taken trips to Ethiopia with someone who was adopting a child and with people who were doing humanitarian work. He returned with information about the killing of "mingi" children in the country's South Omo region―children that some villagers believed to be cursed. A child could be considered mingi because of physical deformities, illegitimacy or ancient superstitions. Some villagers believe that if a cursed infant is not killed, bad luck will come to the village.

Egan noticed that relatively little had been written about the subject, and teamed up with LaPlante, 33, a national security reporter at the Tribune, to remedy that fact. The two had worked together on a story about Iraq in 2005 and wanted the opportunity to work together again, LaPlante says.

Together, they approached their paper for funding for the project. They were turned down.

"We were disappointed," LaPlante says. "I wish I could say I was surprised, but the paper had been reprioritizing." "Reprioritizing" means less international coverage, he adds.

Undeterred, the reporters came back to their bosses several times with new ideas for making the story happen. They offered to pay their expenses if the Tribune kept paying their salaries. They said they would produce other stories out of Ethiopia that would be meaningful for their Utah readers. No luck.

Tribune Editor Nancy Conway says the paper "already had lots of big stories on the story board" when the duo made their pitch. If the Tribune had enough money, it would have funded the project, she says, adding, "I thought it was a good story."

LaPlante, who had planned to leave the Tribune to teach at Utah State University, where he is currently an assistant professor of journalism, quit his job early. He cashed in his unused vacation pay to help finance the project. Egan took vacation time to make the journey to Africa. "They were very kind to let me take the time off to go," Egan says.

The journalists sought money from friends and family, setting up a PayPal account and posting information about their project on their Facebook pages. They raised the money they needed in a couple of weeks.

"We asked people to support a project that we believed in and they would likely want to get behind, and they did," LaPlante says.

Once they had the funding, they had to move quickly. The region of Ethiopia where they were heading is inaccessible for seven to nine months out of the year due to rain, and they did not want to wait another year to do the reporting.

"We wanted to be first on the story," LaPlante says. "We wanted to be the people who told the story to the world." He adds, "The sooner we could tell the story, the sooner other people might find out who are in position to take some sort of positive action."

They tried to make as many contacts as they could in the region, and ended up linking up with a group, Drawn from Water, which cared for mingi children in an orphanage. The journalists thought they could center their piece on the group and the children they helped. But the organization ran into problems with the regional government and left the area.

Egan and LaPlante had lost their entire source network and had to start from scratch. "Rick and I put our heads together and asked if we still wanted to do this, and the answer was always, 'Yes,' " LaPlante says.

Before they began their reporting, they discussed how they would handle ethical issues such as dealing with multiple translators and a culture with little media exposure, where they might run into people who would expect to be compensated for the information they provided.

They also had to decide what to do if they were in the presence of the sacrifice of a mingi child. "Ultimately what we decided is that we're journalists," LaPlante says. The two agreed that they would not intervene if a sacrifice were to take place. "The chances that intervention was going to be successful would've been very remote anyway."

However, they agreed not to blame one another if, despite their agreement, one of them found it impossible to stand by. They never ended up in that situation.

While the reporters were told that people in the South Omo region would not be receptive to them, LaPlante says they found the opposite to be true. People noticed that they were interested in hearing all sides of the story without making judgments, which made them open to talking, he says. There were women who had never had the opportunity to share what had happened to their children and were willing to tell their stories.

"The mingi situation isn't something that's taboo," Egan says. "It's not something they're ashamed of. They aren't proud of it. It's a part of their life."

The two spent two weeks of in the region. LaPlante began writing and had a first draft completed by the time they left Ethiopia. "Stories like this kind of write themselves," he says. "The majority of it came together pretty quickly."

"We didn't have a buyer for it before we left," Egan says. Christianity Today ultimately bought the story and allowed the two journalists to republish the piece after three months, he says.

The story did not have as much of an impact as the two hoped, but LaPlante is still pleased with the outcome. "Sometimes you think the world is going to change when you write something, but you're not the world-changing force, you're just the journalist," he says.

"I'm pleased with the story. I'm pleased with what we were able to do. We did our part and we did it successfully."

"I really don't know what impact it's had," Egan says. He thought that once the fate of the mingi children was reported to the U.S., people would rally to end the killings, he says. But he hasn't heard of it happening.

"As journalists it's our job to tell the story, and what happens after that is out of our hands," Egan says.

The prize they won, the 2012 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism, recognizes journalists for their ethical decisions and integrity when writing and reporting stories.

Egan and LaPlante were chosen because of their commitment and careful planning and reporting, says Tim Gleason, dean of the Oregon J-school and chair of the award's judging panel. "We thought they did a very thoughtful and caring job reporting the story," Gleason says. "We're thrilled to be able to honor these journalists."

Said the judges in a statement: "Having resolved their ethical dilemmas in advance of leaving the U.S., these journalists were able to report this tragic story in a way that was direct and very effective."

"It was really an honor," LaPlante says. "Rick and I both won some awards for our product, but never for our process. It's a very unique award in that it honors the process as much as the product. Maybe the most difficult part of journalism is the decision making part, and this honors that."

"I was very humbled and excited about it," Egan says. "I really didn't expect any awards from this."