Unwanted spotlight

When private people become part of a public story

Sometime private people are forced by unusual circumstances into the public eye. What consideration should they – and their families – be given when revealing personal information?

By Elinor Brecher

Elinor Brecher is a writer for the Miami Herald. She wrote the original story for The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4 (July 1989), 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.

 

Brenda Sue Schaefer was by journalists’ standards a “private person.” The 36-year-old doctor’s office assistant lived with her parents and to all appearances, conducted a perfectly ordinary, predictable life. Her disappearance last September, and police assumed her killing, thrust Schaefer into the public eye – and me into a dilemma that would literally cause me sleepless nights.

I was assigned at The Courier-Journal to take a close look at the woman whose fate had made her an object of intense curiosity and speculation.

Two important questions loomed: When a private person becomes an unwitting public figure, how much personal information is necessary and/or desirable to tell an accurate story? When that person is not available for an interview, then who are the primary sources?

Frequently with murder stories, reporters must balance the need to collect information with the feelings of survivors, who invariably endow the martyred loved one with a saintliness that blots out not just the negative but even neutral reality.

These particular survivors presented an especially delicate problem. The Schaefers’ eldest son, a police officer, had been killed on duty during the early 1970s. And Brenda’s mother was in frail health. Her two remaining sons would not permit me to interview her or their father. They said the strain of talking about the case might actually kill their mother, and that their father’s emotional condition was none too stable either.

I wanted to discover the real Brenda Schaefer, to pull from her life incidents, patterns and traits that I thought were key to her story, helping readers understand why they should care about her. In all, I interviewed about two dozen sources. Some of what I learned was less than complimentary. But all was revealing.

Yes, she was a dutiful and loving daughter to her mother. Yes, her employer prized her to such an extent that he eventually sent her fiance a threatening letter, earning himself criminal charges. Yes, even her former husband still thought she was beautiful. I carefully reported all this praiseworthy information, and a great deal more.

However, there was something troubling about Brenda Schaefer. She lacked self-confidence, ambition and direction. She was never satisfied with herself. Despite near-perfect teeth, she got braces as an adult. Despite a marvelous figure, she had breast implants. Despite more than a passing resemblance to Marlo Thomas, she had her nose bobbed.

Toward the end of her life, she became increasingly paranoid, irritable, moody and disruptive, according to co-workers.

After her divorce, she often became involved with men who tended to have serious personal problems and/or checkered pasts. I learned that she frequented pick-up bars, and heard more than I cared to about unsettling family dynamics, her sexual habits and hang-ups.

In discussions with my editors, I agonized about the relevance and propriety of much of the personal information. I tried to put myself in the family’s place and think how I would feel if the story concerned someone I loved.

Was it worth trashing a dead woman’s reputation and injuring people already suffering just to spin an intriguing yarn? I was hardly eager to have the demise from hysteria of an aging parent on my conscience, and even spoke to the mother’s doctor about how the story might affect her.

But in the end, we concluded that some “character development” not only was necessary to tell the story but might help shine a light on the dark path to Brenda Schaefer’s disappearance. Specifically: Did this woman’s habits, mores and associations help lead her into a dangerous situation?

Despite enormous restraint, judicious editing and intense review by lawyers, her family saw the story as an invasion of Brenda Sue’s privacy and a callous assault on their grief.

The first sign of trouble was a phone call from a woman whom I would later learn was Schaefer’s niece. I was out of town when it came, but she told a colleague the story was “tacky.”

She accused me of deliberately twisting family members’ quotes. She was most bitter that I had interviewed the missing woman’s former husband, although every remark attributed to him was complimentary. She told my colleague that she hoped the same thing would happen in my family so I could suffer as Brenda’s had.

She eventually called me, demanding to know why I hadn’t interviewed the people closest to Brenda. It was no use explaining that I had indeed talked to three of Brenda’s four siblings – including the niece’s own mother – and that the parents were being shielded from my inquiries. (After being told that Essie Schaefer, Brenda’s mother, made almost daily calls to Brenda’s co-workers to discuss the case, I asked one of them to give me her number. Neither of the elder Schaefers ever called.)

Other family members called the newspaper’s ombudsman, saying the story had upset Essie Schaefer so much that she had to be sedated. One brother wrote to the newspaper that in order to preserve the reputation of The Courier-Journal, I shouldn’t be allowed to write about anything serious.

Such revilement notwithstanding, I don’t believe I would handle this story much differently given another chance. We had spelled out for the reader–in as much detail as I could provide, given the off-the-record constraints imposed by the police–who Brenda Schaefer was and what the events were that led up to her disappearance.