‘Quick! Follow that mentally disabled child,’ and other journalistic dilemmas
I imagine this sort of story will make no one happy. In some way, it is also self-aggrandizing — but I am aware of that and will now say that I am not enamored of myself or proud of my decision in this matter. It is simply a good example of the complexity of being a reporter and how the 24-hour news hysteria can be as compromising to reporters as to the legitimacy of journalism.
Here’s the story: He must have been about 16 years old. He had that look, simply, of a severally mentally disabled person, including the slight disfigurement and challenged motor function. He was loaded down with a backpack you’d see on a much younger child and was carrying a poster of a flower made from cut-out crepe paper pieces.
I was a 39-year-old father of three and professional journalist standing on the sidewalk just off school grounds in front of the Pasco High School in the Tri-Cities, Wash., with my notebook out and my pen twitching between my fingers like a cat’s tail.
It was February 2003 and I was one of a half-dozen reporters dispatched around the state from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to track down information about a woman accused, along with her former husband, of espionage. The case involved “top-secret military documents, far-right militias and a potentially grave threat to national security.”
At the time of her arrest, the suspect was living in College Place near Walla Walla and was commuting to the high school in Pasco, where she was a special-education teacher.
I had talked to a dozen people in the town and then rushed to Pasco where I stood outside the high school to catch students, parents and teachers as they left the school property to get perspective, to get quotes and/or leads about her life, and I was striking out.
Then this young man walked out of the school and hit the sidewalk and was, undoubtedly, walking home to waiting parents whom I imagined waited everyday at this hour with a little bit of anxiety for him to walk in the door.
A lot of conflicting emotions were coursing through me as I started following him down the sidewalk. When I saw what house he walked into, I would wait a heartbeat or two and knock on the door. I was sure they would know her or at least know people who did. I was sure they would have plenty to say about their son being caught in that strange vortex of a nationally important story suddenly overlaying their lives.
It was a lucky break, frankly, the kind of break that can lead to great stories and the kind of real-life detail that makes for award-winning reporting.
Now, I had knocked on a lot of doors of people whose sons, daughters, fathers, mothers or relatives were dead, brutalized or perpetrators of heinous crimes. In my first year as a reporter, nearly 15 years before, in Cut Bank, Mont., where a pillar of the community and a leader in a local church had been charged with sexually molesting little girls at the church and in his home. I walked the several blocks from my home to his family home and knocked on the door to give him a chance to respond to the charges. I knew him well. I knew his wife. I knew a lot about their accomplished older children.
That was a hard door to knock on, but it was the right thing to do, I believed then and do still.
But about a block into my pursuit of this child, I stalled out. I just couldn’t stalk this kid to his home. I saw myself as a … well a profiler at the very least (“Hello. I’m a reporter and I followed your kid home because he is clearly mentally disabled and …”). I saw that I would have lost a little something in the hopes I had for my own parenting, my role as a person who wanted mostly to have a positive impact on society. Just remembering the internal turmoil I felt standing there watching him get away, with that damned colorful poster hanging from his clutching fingers bending in the wind, still makes my palms sweaty with anxiety.
I’m sure it was a failure journalistically, because of the dozens of doors I’d knocked on leading to the private lives of the dead, maimed and destroyed, the people who answered those doors almost invariably wanted to talk, wanted to share this suddenly and completely disorienting experience with a community, someone. It is what we do with pain and confusion — we talk about it and yell and try to find some understand of what has just happened to us.
But this was one door I just couldn’t knock on. I couldn’t hide from my conscience the fact that following this kid home was pure exploitation. So, I turned away and drove to a cafe and filed my quotes and details (used in the last few paragraphs of the story). … And I was protected from this scruple ending my career or forcing me into writing obituaries for a six-month probation or any kind of retribution at all because I was part of a professional newspaper dedicated to its reporters.
I worry that the panic to publish every second and every detail of any story would have ground up my scruples, would have pushed me to do something I would have regretted. I wonder what happens to civil society when personal ethics and scruples in journalists are seen as failures and only those willing to hunt anyone, cross any barrier, are the only journalists left.
Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.
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