Ethical issues real life reporters face

Earlier I had the opportunity to attend the 100th anniversary event for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, which featured speakers from a variety of journalistic and artistic pursuits. Many, if not all of them have come face to face with ethical and moral dilemmas in their work. It could be said that one does not become a Pulitzer Prize winner by playing it safe and avoiding conflicts. Indeed many of the reporters who spoke at the panels encountered a multitude of issues surrounding the topical aspects of their story, the characters they interviewed, and the best way to deliver the information to the public in a way that would keep those involved in the scandals safe, but also keep the significance and poignancy of the story intact so that it might bring about real change.

In particular, one reporter’s struggle with a story that encompassed a particularly painful subject resonated with me. Maria Henson was a editorial writer for the Herald Leader of Kentucky in 1991 when she exposed a systemic failure of Lexington law enforcement and government to protect habitually abused wives from their husbands. As Henson described in her talk, these were women who had gone by the book in seeking out help from authorities, taking every single measure they could find to try and secure protection, to no avail. Police were often lackadaisical in their responses to domestic violence to the point where Henson said they put a search out for a husband carrying a crowbar with intent to kill his wife that carried roughly the same weight as neighbors playing loud music.

The crimes she wrote about were horrible, vicious and heartbreaking and even more unthinkable was the sheer lack of empathy from the authorities supposedly entrusted with protecting these women. Henson posed a particularly difficult dilemma when she would interview the surviving abused wives which was whether to use their real names in her editorial articles. She said she was afraid that if she did include the names, those women could face serious if not life-threatening retaliation from their spouses for opening up to the press. As Henson explained,

“I wondered, if I put these women’s names in the paper, am I putting them in danger?”

She said that at the time she suffered from nightmares of women being abused and killed, and wrestled with the issue through the sleepless nights. In the end, she decided to include all the correct information and names and it had an immediate effect. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, in 1992 every single legislation that Henson’s column recommended was passed in Kentucky’s legislature.

It appears that Henson’s rationale was that risk of harm to her sources by including their names would be overwhelmingly outweighed by the potential for real legislative and systematic change that could only happen if the stories were personal, gripping and raw. Simply saying “a woman who chose to remain off the record” wouldn’t carry the same meaning as an actual name. It was therefore Henson’s hope that the end would justify the means, and save lives. Her sources were at risk of course, but she also had to think about the entire female population of Lexington and their well-being. If she put one or two women at risk to save thousands of lives in the present and future, it would be the right choice and that is what I would also have to agree with. Sometimes the very sources we rely on as journalists can be put at risk just by talking to us. But it’s very important that we tell their stories in the press to as detailed an extent as we possibly can, because it is only through the power of the pen to invoke compassion and empathy that true change can be achieved in many of these scenarios.

I also consider the panel which included Boston Globe reporter and Sacha Pfeiffer and ex-reporter for the The Patriot News and current CNN correspondent Sara Ganim, both of whom broke incredibly important scandals that rocked two highly regarded institutions to their core.

Pfeiffer, who was part of the Globe Spotlight team which revealed the Boston Catholic Church sex abuse epidemic, and Ganim who exposed Jerry Sandusky of Penn State football as a serial child molester and covered his grand jury trial, both faced similar issues of how to treat their sources in the print stories. As Pfeiffer explained when talking to the victims of priest abuse,

“These are stories they had never told anyone before, even their spouses.”

Ganim expressed her experiences with talking to victims:

“[I have a] horrible feeling when I have to make one of those door knocks…you know you’re invading their life.”

She also explained how similar to Henson’s fears of retaliation, she too was very worried about the victims she quoted.

“There’s been a lot of backlash against the victims by fans…some of them were stalked…called liars.”

But inevitably even with the pain of reliving the horrors of their abuse in order to provide the Globe and Patriot News with the most accurate descriptions of these crimes, and with the risk it put the sources at, this full disclosure practice still ended up being the right choice as we saw both the worldwide Catholic church and the Penn State athletic program undergo serious reform, and many perpetrators of the crimes put behind bars by way of the witness testimonies.

In both cases, it seemed that these trailblazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters adopted a teleological approach to the problem, putting the ends above the means. They felt it was better to risk possible harm to their sources, in order to provide the best outcome. They also considered the ‘golden mean’ principle when they rationalized that it was better to put a few victims at risk for the greater good of all potentially involved by these abuse epidemics (i.e. two wives possibly getting retaliation < all wives in Kentucky being protected under the law).

As difficult of a situation as this is, and as painful of a decision as it can be to name sources in such matters, I would have to agree with Henson, Pfeiffer and Ganim in their decisions to put the greater good first. I would reason that we as reporters have a responsibility not only to our sources but to our entire readership, and the actual story itself as well. These three duties can easily clash as they did in the aforementioned cases, and when they do I think we have to try our best to keep truth as the highest held principle (not that using an unnamed source is necessarily ‘lying’). That might not always be the most comfortable or savory choice, but with any hope the power of the story you are writing can provide aid not only to your sources but so many other people in their same predicament.