A 7-year-old girl, unable to speak or feed herself, discovered in a filthy, roach-infested room, her diaper overflowing and her body covered with bites. How do you tell a story like this? Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times responded by clearing its Sunday features section and devoting six ad-free pages to a 6,500-word narrative and haunting photographs of the girl and her adoptive family.
The project was the result of months of reporting and photographing by two gifted journalists, as well as a behind-the-scenes team. The story is worth a reader’s time. And for journalists, it’s worth analyzing for lessons learned, including this: A few months into the project, reporter Lane DeGregory and photographer Melissa Lyttle found themselves without compelling content for the Web and had to retrace their steps in reporting this story. (Here’s the multimedia presentation
Among the other important lessons are how these journalists:
Earned a family’s trust and gained access to its most intimate moments
Collaborated with and depended on a team throughout the newsroom and company
Balanced unfettered access with compassion for the story’s subjects
There’s much more in the hourlong interview
I conducted with DeGregory and Lyttle. (Right-click on the link to save this MP3 file and listen to it later.) Here’s a quick guide to the highlights:
THE STORY IDEA
Steve Myers: How did you find out about the story?
I’ve been working with this woman from the Heart Gallery
named Carolyn Eastman for about five or six years … She’s just a very good advocate for kids and for journalism. She understands the kind of stories we like to do, she understands the kind of access we need, that we’re looking for more than what happened in court that day. So she’s good at brokering the stuff for us. …
She came to us in February and she said that she had this, I think she called it a miracle: “I’ve got this miracle child to tell you about, this little girl who was the last person we ever thought would be adopted. We thought she’d be in a nursing home at best, and we put her up in the Heart Gallery last February, and lo and behold this wonderful family has adopted her.”
We called her the feral child. She was a little girl who was left in a closet-sized room basically for almost the first seven years of her life, and she had been taken by the police and adopted by a family who lived in the Lee County area of Florida. …
[Carolyn] actually called the family and talked to them and said, “Hey, I’ve got these journalists I want to come and help share your story.” The family was really kind of hesitant at first. They’d turned down some TV requests at the time and just decided they wanted to live quietly and privately. Carolyn worked for a little while with them and brokered with them and sent them some of our other work and ended up getting permission for us to meet them.
Did you have any concerns or reservations about having someone else broker a story?
Melissa Lyttle: We drove down with her and Dani’s caseworker for the very first interview, the very first time we went to Fort Myers to meet the family. Just to turn it into reality, she was a great intro. They already were familiar with her; they were familiar with the caseworker. They really opened to us because they had that trust. … They passed that along to us. … [Carolyn Eastman] was our passport into that situation.
She obviously wasn’t with you the whole time. How did you build your own relationship?
DeGregory: …We told the family at the end of that first day, “What kind of things do you do with Danielle on a regular basis?” “We go to the beach, she goes to school. She goes horseback riding, we take her to church.” And Melissa and I told them, “We want to be there for all of that. We want to watch and follow her as she progresses and as she learns. We want to be there at bedtime, we want to be there at bath time, we want to be there when you eat dinner.” … I don’t think they anticipated us wanting to invest so much time.
Lyttle: It’s all about relationship-building. The first time was more of an interview. … While Lane got to know the parents and was sitting there with the caseworker who was asking for updates on Danielle and with Carolyn Eastman … I had about three hours with Danielle. And I got her really comfortable in front of the camera because I sat there for so long and I watched the same movements over and over. I’m not the photographer who runs around the room climbing on things, but just being in her presence for that long made the next time that much easier. …
Did the family have any reservations about you saying, “We want to be here all the time”?
DeGregory: Lucky for them, they were three hours away so I couldn’t be there all the time. If they had been in our circulation area, I would have been there every day. But we had to arrange visits with them. And so we arranged to come down for a whole day or to come down for a day [or] overnight and the next day.
Did you bring Melissa in at the very beginning?
Lyttle: I was the photographer for the whole thing. I was there for all the moments, witnessed it. The great part was Lane and I would have a three-hour car ride back, and if I was in Danielle’s room by myself, Lane was very aware that I had the alone time. [She asked] “What happened in there? What was going on? What was she doing?” I’m the same way: “What did the parents say? Did you ask them about this?” We had that collaboration time and I think that’s one of the things that Carolyn really respects, that we are sort of this single unit. One’s not dropping by when the other isn’t.
How is this collaboration visible in the photos or the story?
DeGregory: I love Melissa’s photographs, and she printed them all out for me before I started writing the story. [Melissa and her photo editor] were down to about 30 images, and she printed them out in color and I pasted them all around my office where I write. So as I was writing the story, I was looking at the photographs. And I take really descriptive notes. I write about the colors of things and the smells of things and the motion of things, but her photographs bring back other details that I might not have remembered. …
We spent February through June with these people, so four or five months with them, and things started to repeat themselves. It’s going to sound strange and metaphorical, but Danielle is all about repetitive motion. So, the same things would happen again and again with the potty and the toothbrush and the bedtime and the bath and the beach. [Melissa] might tell me about a scene … so I would go back and be able to witness the same scene another day. …
One person could be a fly on the wall while the other person asked the questions. A lot of times if you’re just trying by yourself to be a fly on the wall, they feel like they have to interact with you in some way.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE STORY
Now, Melissa, in terms of deciding what photos you wanted to take, and what you needed, how did you decide what you had to have to tell the story? … How did you go about getting those photos?
Lyttle: In a lot of different ways, it was talking to Lane on our drives home, as we were debriefing, and it was just talking to the parents and having them throw a little nugget out there. “Oh, well, you guys go to the beach every Sunday? Can we hang around for that?” And I knew I needed to make a picture of their outing, just from how they described it to me.
A lot of times, it’s just sitting, and watching, and waiting. You just let this moment come. Especially the picture at the very end, of Bernie holding her up and Danielle looking out the window with this beautiful light on her –- [a lot of times it's a] total surprise. I was in there long enough and they had forgotten me, and they went about themselves, and it just became this really beautiful, beautiful surprise. That’s the only way I can describe it.
That bath photo, had you been thinking, this is something I want to be able to get?
Lyttle: It only took one time of asking; it took several times of me getting up the courage to ask. It was something the parents mentioned to me and I said, “Wow, that sounds great, I’d really love to witness that.” And they said, “Our normal habit, our normal routine is, we go to the beach on Sunday, we come home and then we swim in the pool for a little while and then I put the kids in the bath and they play and they’re still in their swimsuits and they just squirt toys at each other, and Willie puts bubble beards and bubble mohawks on her.”
REPORTING THE STORY
What kind of documents did you use to pull this together?
DeGregory: The pile, it would fill a Xerox paper box. It’s huge, probably a thousand pages of documents at least. And we had a lot of great help on that, in weird kind of ways.
The woman who had been the attorney ad litem for Danielle … is now a Circuit Court judge. She helped us figure out what we could and couldn’t get that was in the case record. … The detective from the Plant City police department: He gave us all the evidence photos, he gave us all of the arrest reports, he gave us his handwritten notes from the case that day. He had tons of stuff he just handed over. And then the weirdest thing –
Lyttle: Michelle Crockett, the birth mother — we were interviewing her and it was our second trip down there. We were asking specific questions about something and she said, … “Let me go get my box.” And she comes out of her bedroom with this stack in her arms, probably 8 or 9 inches deep of documents. And she sits them down in front of me and Lane and we just start reading them. That’s when we found out things like that there was another time when DCF was called out to the house. … Then Michelle just said, “You guys are welcome to take them.” She put them all in a Glad garbage bag for us and we carried it out of there like a sack of laundry. It was probably 500 pages.
And this is stuff you never would have been able to get.
DeGregory: No, that was the best stuff of all. We didn’t know — a lot of people at DCF didn’t know — that they’d been out there to investigate. Different address, different city, but same mother, three years earlier. We didn’t know any of that from the court stuff … But she had these reports and she gave them to us. … It was like, oh my God, roaches and dirty diapers and fleas, and the kid can’t talk. And it was all documented three years earlier.
CONNECTING WITH SUBJECTS
I’m fascinated by how you report on someone who seems so unknowable like Dani. How did you gain her trust?
DeGregory: That was the hardest part. I went in thinking I was going to interview this girl and go, “Hey, what happened?” I knew she didn’t speak when they found her, but I didn’t know she still couldn’t speak — until we met her. …
Lyttle: I still remember the day that we made the connection. It was the second trip there and I was sitting on the floor in her room as she was watching this little video on her computer screen, a little interactive game kind of thing. I was talking to her like a normal kid — “Oh, which one do you think that is? Is that red?” — just asking her questions they were saying, trying to re-emphasize language skills. I just remember at one point about halfway through her game, she reached out with her foot, and she just touched me. She was kind of checking me out … her little hello there, like a pat on the back. She had initially used her feet for almost everything, to pick things up and to hold her bottle. So it’s kind of like her extended hand in some ways. …
DeGregory: She would do weird stuff … Like we were talking to Diane, her new mom, at one point and saying, “Did she really swim? Did she really teach herself to swim?” And all of a sudden, as soon as we’re saying that, she … pops in the pool and started dog paddling around. So she understands we’re doubting this and she’s going to show off to us. That was cool because she knew we were talking about her. …
… She would do stuff more when you didn’t expect it. … We rode with them in the car as they went to horseback riding, and they were in their SUV. The parents were up front and Melissa and I were in the next two seats and William and Danielle were in the back seat. Danielle has this little “Speak and Spell” thing like you get for an infant … Melissa’s shooting the kids in the backseat, I’m talking to the parents leaning to the front seat, and Danielle for like five minutes is [using the "Speak and Spell"] going, “R, R, radio; R, R, radio; R, R, radio.” And finally Melissa and I looked at each other because it was driving us crazy, just over and over again, and we were like, “Does she mean to do that?” And the mom goes, “What?” because she’d been talking to me. And we all stopped for a minute and another minute of “R, R, radio” and all of a sudden the mom goes, “Oh, sweetie, you want me to turn on the radio, I’m sorry.’”
Lyttle: She said, “We normally have it on on the ride home and it really kind of soothes her.” And you’ll see her rocking back and forth to the songs and we kind of thought that was her way of expressing herself at that point. We didn’t doubt it ever again after that point. …
Let’s move from reporting the story to writing and producing it. How did you know when it was time to start doing that? NEXT PAGE