When journalists play God . . .

News coverage of a person with a fatal or potentially fatal illness can mean the difference between life and death. How do you determine who gets attention?

By Brian Ojanpa

Brian Ojanpa is a staff writer for the Free Press, Mankato, MN.

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. 2 (May 1989), pp. 1,8.

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.


It’s a plea that’s hard to refuse.

The person on the phone is telling you of a local family saddled with huge medical bills and looming tragedy.

The parents are unemployed, there’s no insurance, and their 4-year-old daughter is stricken with a rare form of cancer. A fund drive is being planned.

“We were wondering if you could do a story,” the caller says.

On its face, the story doesn’t appear to pose a problem. It has drama, tension, human interest – all the requisites for a compelling feature and heart-rending pictures.

You interview the family, run the story, and go on to other things.

Then the phone rings again. A family with a similar plight has the same request.

At this point, news judgment, fairness, and ethics can collide.

Do you agree to do a similar story – again – knowing you may be opening the floodgates for other afflicted parties? Do you fudge on a decision by telling the caller you’ll “pass this information on to the appropriate editor”?

More bluntly, do you say “yes” to one stricken family and “no” to another? Should you?

Providing coverage of individuals with fatal or potentially fatal diseases poses some sticky questions.

The stories, while they can be journalistically justified, also cast the media in the role of private fund-raiser – a role many editors and reporters find uncomfortable.

More importantly, these stories cast us in a God-playing role because we, in effect, decide who gets to benefit from the public pocketbook.

A case in point: Last year, we ran a large feature and photo on a 1-year-old boy needing a kidney transplant. His uninsured family’s medical expenses had topped $100,000.

The community took up the cause. A transplant fund was started. A local supermarket provided free breakfasts in exchange for donations. A woman donated her Tupperware party proceeds. Eight-thousand balloons were launched, each bearing a donor’s name.

Of course, this was all wonderful. What was not so wonderful was another family calling a couple months later, chiding us for the “unfair” coverage (we ran a news brief) given their cancer-stricken child.

What happened? We had simply slipped into the journalist’s we-just-did-that-kind-of-story mentality and given the second family’s story a passing nod.

OK, so life is unfair. Trouble is, that’s not supposed to apply to the media.

The fallout from the second family prodded us to assess our treatment of such stories.

We toyed with giving uniform play to everyone. That is, all stories falling into the grave illness/fund drive category would be given similar space and placement in the newspaper.

But that suggestion was quickly dismissed. Because each case is different, with some more compelling than others, it would be wrong to don blinders and give every story six inches on an inside page or, conversely, 20 inches and a photo on page one.

It was also suggested that our coverage be determined by an illness’ severity, with terminal or potentially terminal cases rating full feature coverage and non-terminal illnesses accorded lesser play.

Again, that suggestion was ruled out for the same reasons stated above.

Ultimately, we decided to accommodate, with at least a news brief, anyone who requested “coverage.”

As a community newspaper we believe we can, and should, serve the reader in a literal sense, or at least more so than metropolitan media.

When we get one of these phone calls, we find it helpful to apply the personal litmus test: If this were happening to our family, what reasonable expectations would we have of our community’s newspaper?

The key word here is “reasonable.” This gives us a working, albeit subjective, guideline in deciding upon the degree of coverage. This is important because, as stated earlier, all such requests get their day in print. Vetoing coverage is not an option.

Ultimately, though, this type of story jumps through the same set of hoops (reader interest, timeliness, etc.) as other feature stories. But an additional test – comparable worth, if you will – separates it from the general feature genre.

We try to determine a story’s merit by comparing it with similar terminal illness stories we’ve done: Does this story break new ground? Is it more or less compelling than previous stories? Can it be beefed up with any hard news, say, input from researchers on recent treatment breakthroughs?

Answering these questions allows us to be professionally equitable in our coverage while also providing specific reasons for our amount of coverage when we field reader inquiries.

Simply put, it allows us to cull the herd. All these stories are “worthy;” the guidelines help us determine what is newsworthy.

Our guidelines seem to be working well. At the least, reporters and editors are being spared the agony of making seat-of-the-pants decisions on these stories.

At most, they’ve made the duty of playing God something we can live with.

For further analysis of this issue, see “Deciding on coverage.