Betraying a trust

Our story wronged a naive subject

Journalists have a responsibility to protect story subjects who are not used to dealing with the media.

By Mary Beausoleil

Mary Beausoleil is a freelance writer. She was formerly managing editor of the Valley News, West Lebanon, NH.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 5 (August 1990), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

If the subject of our story had said she was seduced and betrayed, instead of misquoted, she would have been right.

On Jan. 3, 1984, the Valley News in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, published a story about the first baby of 1984 born in the area. A staple of community journalism, it began as most such stories do: with a rosy account of the facts surrounding the birth as told by the mother during an interview in her hospital bed. Then, about six inches into the story, it said: “Tammy was looking forward to taking Daniel home to meet Steven today. Steven was one of the reasons she decided to get pregnant, even though she’s single.

“’Steven needs a younger brother,’ Tammy said yesterday. ‘He’s so hyper. And I figured I don’t have anything else to do. I’m not married and I don’t work and I love kids, so why not have a second baby?’

“Tammy has no current man in her life. She lives upstairs from her parents, receives welfare checks and wouldn’t change the situation for anything. 

“’I like being a single mother. You learn to do more for yourself, because you can’t count on other people to do things for you.’”

John Fensterwald, the local news editor at the time, was surprised at Tammy’s candor. The reporter, Sallie Graziano, assured him that Tammy was pleased to be so featured. The story was edited and given a headline (“New Year’s Baby Gives Mom Happy Start”). As assistant local news editor, I gave it a quick second reading. We had given the story fairly routine treatment.

Our readers did not, however. Within a few days, letters to the editor began to arrive. Angry letters. For the next four months, we published letters about this story nearly every week.

Most letter writers saw the girl as too comfortable in her sense of entitlement; they cited her as proof of what they had long suspected. This letter was typical: “I never thought I would see the day when someone would admit in black and white, on the front page of a newspaper, that they loved sitting home having babies and not working while the welfare check comes rolling in. We all know many people do it. I just hadn’t seen anyone have the gall to admit it in print before.”

Within a few weeks, the conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey, as outraged as our letter writers, broadcast Tammy’s story nationwide.

Soon afterward, Tammy, as well as some of her relatives, contacted the newsroom. Her life had become a living hell, and she was afraid to leave her apartment because of the abuse she encountered on the street. She wanted a retraction, she said, because we had misquoted her.

Tammy lashed out at us in the only way she knew: by contesting the facts. She had probably never thought to say we had betrayed her implicit trust— a charge we could not have dismissed so easily.

One or two letter writers criticized the newspaper, not the mother: ” . . . my initial reaction was not one of disgust with the baby’s mother, but with your staff’s lack of moral consciousness. You took advantage of someone’s frankness and purposefully put into print an article that you must have known would only humiliate her in the end . . .”

Take out “purposefully”, and substitute “should” for “must” and that writer was on target.

By this time, the story had become the focus of an ongoing newsroom debate. Some editors argued that the story’s accuracy was enough to warrant publication and that it represented a viewpoint readers were interested in and entitled to read.

Others said we should have omitted all the material about welfare, or that the reporter should have given her a sort of Miranda warning about what she was saying. Obviously, it was too late for that.

We finally decided that, at the least, our story’s sprightly tone could have made the mother sound too cavalier. A different reporter tried to contact Tammy to offer to write about how the story had affected her. That would give her a chance to describe any plan she might have (or might invent, if she didn’t already have one) for a more productive life than the one implied in our story. But Tammy never answered the reporter’s messages, and we never heard from her again.

The reporter in this case intended no seduction and betrayal. She didn’t approach Tammy the way reporters sometimes approach hardened media manipulators, hoping to get them to drop their guard. Tammy didn’t have to let her guard down. It wasn’t up.

No, here the danger lay in this combination: a naive interviewee, susceptible to the flattery implicit in the undivided attention of a friendly interviewer; a seasoned reporter, for whom showing interest is a professional demeanor implying no special sympathy; and editors who did not anticipate the public outrage that was so hurtful to Tammy.

Would we have published the story anyway, if we had foreseen the reaction? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

We often assume that people who become story subjects by accident are as sophisticated about the press as cagey public officials. Usually they aren’t. They trust us to keep them from hurting themselves, and we shouldn’t betray that trust.

 

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