Why we told our source ‘yes’
The story subject, once willing, now wanted out. Using her interview would likely help others — but hurt her.
By Scott Thomas
Scott Thomas is features copy desk chief, The Buffalo News.
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. 3 (June 1990), p. 3.
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.
I had a notebook full of psychiatrists. I had clinical literature. I had a bunch of secondhand anecdotes. All the story needed was a strong human element to build on.
I thought I had found it when the woman poured out her private agony to me in an hour-long telephone interview.
The problems began when she tried to take it all back.
The story was about obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental condition whose victims feel compelled to repeat senseless behaviors — typically variations of counting, cleaning and checking — until their lives are consumed by them. I was writing it for BUFFALO, the Sunday magazine of The Buffalo News.
I got “Betty’s” name from the Obsessive-compulsive Disorder Foundation, to which she had written for help. I called and explained my story, saying I hoped it would help to inform OCD victims of treatments and support groups. Betty seemed receptive, but jittery.
When I called a week later, she hesitantly agreed to an interview. Once we got going, it became obvious that the chance to talk was a welcome catharsis.
Betty was a “checker” — she could never be sure of anything. Driving her car, she would find herself cruising again and again down the same street, checking whether she had hit anyone. She pestered her family pointlessly — “Are you sure those potato chips are safe to eat?” She told me she had eaten a cookie with lunch, and was terrified that it had gotten poisoned.
All this from a woman who was once a nurse, who obviously was intelligent and rational but was consumed by her fears. I promised to send her a copy of the article and went home satisfied.
A few days later, she called collect. “I’ve been having second thoughts about this,” she said in that same nervous-energy voice. “I’m not sure I want to be part of your article.” I reminded her that she would remain anonymous, that her story might save others some pain. And I got her off the phone — fast.
A week later, she called again. “I’ve finally decided that it would be better if I didn’t do this,” she said. “I’m sorry if I wasted your time.” Her doctor, she said, had advised her to avoid stress; she had a bleeding ulcer, and she was becoming obsessed with replaying the interview in her mind. So she wanted to take it back.
That’s not how it works, I began to explain. What’s on the record stays on the record.
“No one ever told me that,” she said. She had a point. I repeated my arguments about how this article would help people with OCD, but she was adamant: She wanted out. I told her I’d call her back.
The options were clear: Use the material against her wishes, or kill it and approach the story in a different way.
I was plenty tempted to go with what I had — probably 25 inches of true pathos and great quotes. And after all, hadn’t I given Betty a week to decide whether to do the interview? That seemed more than fair.
There was another reason to use it. One hook for the story was a new anti-OCD drug called Anafranil. But the drug wasn’t going to help everyone, and Betty was a case in point. One of her obsessions focused on anything she ingested, including medication; a prescription would only fan her fears.
I half expected the editor of the magazine, Carl Herko, to say I should use Betty’s material. Instead, he argued the opposite.
“Private people deserve their privacy,” he said. Those who don’t routinely deal with the press, he pointed out, may not be aware of the rules we work under.
One other factor complicated the situation: Betty’s mental state. It was evident that she wasn’t “of sound mind.” Diminished mental capacity would invalidate a legal contract; should the same hold true for the implied contract between source and reporter?
My decision came down to weighing the certainty of causing Betty further distress against the likelihood that her story would benefit other OCD sufferers. For sheer voyeurism, it couldn’t be beaten.
But there were other ways to do the story. I called her, then spiked my notes. She couldn’t thank me enough.
My story did get written and published. It was readable enough, if a little lacking in the drama that Betty could have added.
But by not using her story, I tied up some loose ends. I don’t like the idea that I might have brought more trouble into the life of this troubled woman.
Had I used her story, I would have wondered for a long time what good I had brought about— and what a pain.