THE BEST ADVICE SONIA NAZARIO said she ever got from an editor was show, don’t tell.
The key is observation, the editor told her.
When writing about hunger, Nazario, an urban affairs reporter for the Los Angeles Times, observed a woman divide a hot dog into three for dinner for her three daughters. In a story about young suicide victims, she sat with a mother on the floor of a tiny walk-in closet where the woman’s 13-year-old son had hanged himself just a few days before.
For a two-part series on children with drug- and alcohol-addicted parents, Nazario followed a heroin junkie into a pitch-dark garage where the woman shot up in front of her 3-year-old daughter. She watched as the 3-year-old went for 24 hours without eating.
The resulting article, “Orphans of Addiction,” ignited an ethical firestorm that continues to flicker more than two years after the series was published in November 1997. The series raised an important issue: How do journalists reconcile their professional role of detached observer with the more fundamental instinct to intervene on behalf of mistreated children?
The question was a focal point for an ethics discussion at The Poynter Institute recently. Nazario’s process in reporting and writing the story — in which she spent five months chronicling the lives of children with drug- and alcohol-addicted parents — served as the case study. The audience included newspaper reporters, editors, broadcast reporters, producers, and visual journalists.
Nazario, who led the discussion, compares what she faced while reporting the story to what many police officers and social workers face.
“To some degree you have to buffer yourself from those emotions or you just couldn’t function day to day doing these kinds of stories,” she said. “But I think you have to constantly remind yourself how much you should buffer yourself from those emotions and if you’re pulling away too much. It’s a real balancing act.”
The premise of the article, Nazario said, was to use a few children’s experiences to show what life was like for the millions of other children nationwide who were growing up with drug and alcohol addicts as parents. The hope was that the problem would be recognized and addressed somehow.
“I wanted to describe this first-hand as richly and as powerfully as possible,” Nazario said.
“There were times when I purposefully allowed hunger to play out,” she said. “I knew that this girl often went 24 hours without eating and I wanted to see that. I was willing to watch that happen to see that. I thought I was reporting the neglect that had occurred to these kids in the most powerful way I could by putting it on the front page of a major newspaper.”
Some audience members wanted to know how Nazario could witness something like a 3-year-old going for 24 hours without eating and not intervene. Los Angeles Times readers had expressed the same concern when the article was initially published. Some attacked her moral judgement and condemned her for not alerting authorities.
Nazario said she and her colleagues decided from the beginning that they would contact authorities if they felt that the child was in imminent danger. And in the course of the five months she spent with her sources, Nazario said, she did not feel that the children were ever in imminent danger.
“If I would have turned in every kid who experienced some of the things I was looking at, it would have been very difficult to do the story,” she said. “In my mind I had the choice of doing the story or not doing the story.”
The role of a reporter as a detached observer was drummed into her early on at The Wall Street Journal where she started her career, Nazario said, and she tries to adhere to that principle as much as possible.
“Getting involved makes you a partisan participant,” Nazario said. “You can warp or change the story if you get involved. I would say that despite the attacks, I would still stick to certain yardsticks in terms of trying to abide by the terms of this kind of fly-on-the-wall reporting.”
The issue here is one of competing principles, said Bob Steele, a member of the senior faculty at Poynter.
There is clearly an obligation for the newspaper to reveal the truth about this issue to the readers, Steele said. There also is a journalistic principle that journalists do not become overly involved with their sources or subjects in ways that will change the story or that will make the newspaper seem as if it is an arm of law enforcement or the government. The third principle is one of minimizing harm and what obligation the journalist has in preventing further harm or profound harm to vulnerable people.
The story received nationwide attention, and as a result, more money was pumped into federal and state programs focused on drug and alcohol treatment for women with children, Nazario said. A follow-up story resulted in an audit of the child welfare system in Los Angeles and helped lead to the resignation of the agency’s head.
The three children Nazario wrote about were ultimately put in foster care. The 3-year-old was taken away the day the story was published.
In hindsight, Nazario said she would have written the story much faster. She said she also would have done more front-end ethical decision-making by preparing for worst case scenarios. And although an explanation to the readers was considered, it was eventually decided that it would take away from the focus on the story. Nazario said she now thinks an explanation would have helped readers better understand the issues at hand.
Steele said he thought there was great benefit in hearing Nazario address the ethical issues brought forth by her article.
“Sonia was honest in her justification of her modus operandi,” Steele said. “She was also quite honest in saying she would have done some things differently. The lessons are heard and applied differently by all of us. I believe her account and her reflections serve folks in many different ways. But the lessons will help all of us as we work in ethical minefields.”