How a Minneapolis Journalist Turned a Difficult Situation into a Human Triumph

This article appeared in the November/December 1992 issue of Quill.

When Jacqui Banaszynski of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote her series on "AIDS in the Heartland" in 1987, she had some tough ethical decisions to make at every step in the reporting process. The series was about AIDS, about two gay men, about life, and eventually death on a Minnesota farm. The ethical issues were many: A responsibility to inform the public, invasion of privacy, harm to family members, questions of taste about language and photos, potential manipulation of sources, confidentiality, promise- keeping, and the two-way exploitative relationships between the journalists and the people they were reporting on.

The ethical and the journalistic challenges were great. The stakes were high. The public needed to know much more about AIDS in our society. At the same time, the potential harm to the subjects of the story was just as great. And there were significant questions about journalistic independence.

Banaszynski and photographer Jean Pieri carried out their truth-telling responsibility with dedication and great skill. They also exhibited significant compassion and sensitivity in their reporting. Their paper was committed to publishing a powerful story about a painful issue. Excellence and ethics were tied together. "AIDS in the Heartland" received considerable public acclaim and earned both the Pulitzer Prize and The Society of Professional Journalists Distinguished Service Award.

This case provides an excellent blueprint to apply a decision-making model for doing ethics. Banaszynski and her colleagues at the St. Paul Pioneer Press had to make important and difficult ethical decisions that had a significant impact on the public, the subjects of the story, and the newspaper itself. The journalists' careful and systematic process in making those decisions serves as a model for other journalists.

The "AIDS in the Heartland" series honored the primary obligations and duties of journalism. In the reporting process, Banaszynski and her colleagues went beyond a simple weighing of consequences, a process that could have exploited and harmed the subjects of the story. Instead, they made decisions based on their obligations as both journalists and human beings.

All too often we think of ethics as highly restrictive and negative, and we admonish ourselves or others to avoid certain behaviors or to feel ashamed for having overstepped certain boundaries. We would do better to think of ethics as more proactive, a thought process that helps us do the right thing.

With duty-based ethics, you do not act based on an ends-justifying-the-means logic', where you say, "Well, the result turned out OK." Rather, you raise and then respond to questions based on obligation: What should a good person do to behave well? What basic duties or responsibilities ought I obey or pursue, notwithstanding the consequences?

To apply these questions to our daily work, we can ask ourselves: What are the duties and obligations of journalism? What should we do, and what are the guiding principles?

For journalism, the duty of gathering and distributing truthful information is the primary obligation. A second and corollary duty is acting independently as an essential obligation to fulfill the primary duty. Because journalists are also human beings, there is a third duty we should weigh in all of our decisions, minimizing harm.

We can use these three obligations as our guiding principles, and then further define each by incorporating other basic duties of journalism.

(1) Seek truth and report it fully

  • Inform yourself continually so you can inform, engage, and educate the public in a clear and compelling way on significant issues.

  • Be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting accurate information.

  • Give voice to the voiceless.

  • Hold the powerful accountable.

(2) Act independently

  • Guard vigorously the essential stewardship role a free press plays in an open society.

  • Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power or position counter to the public interest.

  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.

  • Recognize that good ethical decisions require individual responsibility enriched by collaborative efforts.

(3) Minimize harm

  • Be compassionate for those affected by your actions.

  • Treat sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect, not merely as means to your journalistic ends.

  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information might cause harm or discomfort, but balance those negatives by choosing alternatives that maximize your goal of truth-telling.

Let's see how these guiding principles apply to the "AIDS in the Heartland" series by looking at how it was reported and written, and by considering some of Jacqui Banaszynski's decision-making processes.

Banaszynski clearly fulfilled the primary principle. She did a great deal of research and preparatory interviewing to make sure she was well-grounded on the issues. She demonstrated the courage to develop a story where resistance came from several fronts. She said it took the team "almost a year of false starts" to gain access to the people who would open their lives to news coverage. And once Banaszynski and Pieri began reporting on Dick Hanson and Bert Henningson, they spent hundreds of hours on the story over the course of a year, including full-time reporting for about three months. It was a commitment that reflected sincere and serious journalism.

"AIDS in the Heartland" not only factually informed, but also truly educated readers about significant public, health, and social-policy issues, and just as importantly, about the human side of life and death. "It was above all a love story:' Banaszynski would later write. "It was a rare glimpse into a homosexual relationship, the kind of relationship that mystifies most and disgusts many, but that has become an undeniable part of our culture."

Furthermore, Banaszynski honored her responsibility to be honest and fair in her news gathering and reporting. She was forthright with Dick Hanson and Bert Henningson, the subjects of her story, about what she planned to do. "I asked Hanson if we... could try to tell the whole story of AIDS life and death, love and hate, family support and family strife, she says. "Finally, I said, `Dick, understand I'm asking you to do the whole story, beginning to end... We both know you're going to die. I'm asking if I can watch you die."'

Banaszynski was honest with her subjects about what she wanted to do and why. "I had an obligation to report intensely personal and painful events honestly, and yet to do so with respect for the subjects," she says. And she was clear about the potential impact of such a probing story. "We talked about the potential invasion of his privacy:' she says. "About the inevitable anger of his relatives, about the scorn the story would generate, about the logistics of a reporter and photographer having access to the most personal aspects of his life, about negotiating the rough water of mutual trust."

This truth-telling principle gives voice to the voiceless. According to Banaszynski, "We were struggling to find a focus, searching for a story that would go a step beyond the informational coverage of AIDS, a story that would not only humanize the AIDS crisis but enlighten and, perhaps, nudge society toward a more compassionate understanding of this stigmatized killer."

A second guiding principle for journalists is to "Act Independently." Jacqui Banaszynski realized that she could not entirely separate her professional and personal selves, yet the integrity of the story was reflective of her ability to remain independent. "The greatest challenge was to recognize my emotional involvement in the story, to use that emotion to breathe passion into my writing but to detach myself enough to remain focused on the truth" She was both introspective in her journalistic approach and methodical in her reporting, particularly as it related to interviewing and observation.

"We discussed the ground rules," said Banaszynski, in describing the contract she created with her sources. "Everything I see goes in my notebook. I don't know how to not be a reporter... I told them I would tell them about what I would write but I wouldn't show them my copy." Yet she did not act rigidly. She told Dick and Bert that "when we talk and I don't use my notebook, it's not on the record, but I'll come back to you later to ask about it."

Although Banaszynski would not show Dick and Bert her copy, she was willing to negotiate with other family members both to gain access for interviews and to protect their vulnerability. She described how she listened to family members talk for four hours, "telling their pain...,what a psychotherapist would pay big money to see." Because of the willingness of the family to talk, she made a contract with them. She offered to call each of them back independently and tell them how she quoted them and how she described them. If they could convince her that she had erred, she would change it. "Nobody asked me to change anything," she says. "They hated the story, but they all thought it was fair."

Jacqui Banaszynski also recognized that she would have to have a clear understanding with her subjects about the importance to her of getting close to her sources and still remaining at a distance. "When we came (to the farm) we'd get big hugs and pumpkin pie. I'd say, 'Beep-Beep, Reporter-Alert,' and remind them what I was doing,' she says.

She knew how important it was to make collaborative ethical decisions with Pieri and with her editors all during the reporting and writing process. She described how she and Pieri would debrief at key points, saying to each other, "Do you know what we've done here? We both know we've crossed a line we've never crossed before."

Because she knew she was "crossing lines," Banaszynski says she also worked closely with her editors on the ethical implications of her reporting. "I'd also be very, very honest with my editors, to the point of beating it in the ground," she says. "I told them they needed to read my copy and watch me more carefully than any story I've ever done to make sure I'm not whitewashing this and making heroes out of these guys." Banaszynski credits her editors with giving her the "compassionate guidance... the unerring faith...and the disciplined editing" to deal with the "delicate balance" of reporting such a story.

The third guiding principle for journalists, "Minimize Harm" encompasses both personal and professional responsibility. Banaszynski and Pieri were faced with telling what was bound to be an intrusive story about a controversial issue while still being compassionate and showing respect for all those involved.

It was not just an academic question for Banaszynski, but a very practical one.

"What kind of deals do I cut that are ethical (the sources)?" she asked. "To me? To the readers? Can I selectively lie to my readers? We start making compromises. We start looking for alternatives."

For Banaszynski, choosing among alternatives to promote truth telling while minimizing harm was an essential step in the ethical decision-making process. "I agreed I wouldn't talk with Bert's ex-wife because Bert convinced me she was too vulnerable," she says.

Banaszynski also talks about leaving a certain quote out of her story because of the pain the words would have caused to Dick Hanson's family. "I realized I had achieved my effect without putting in that line (from Dick's brother) about 'putting a bullet in (Dick's) head'" Banaszynski also agreed not to write about Bert Henningson's medical status until he gained a farm loan. "I told him I'd give him as much time as possible to get the loan, then we cut a deal that he'd have to trust me," she says.

The editors at the St. Paul Pioneer Press also made a decision designed to "minimize harm" by not running a particular photo. However, that decision was based on the photo's potential impact not on the subjects of the story, but on the readers, and by extension on the paper and its ability to accomplish its goals.

The photo showed Dick and Bert kissing. Pieri and Banaszynski both argued strongly for using the photo. According to Banaszynski, "The editors said 'No way... you are going to lose people for that one picture.' I said to my editors, 'I think you're making the wrong decision' was honest journalism to use that picture. To not run it was dishonest." The editors prevailed, believing that too many readers would be offended by that picture and the result would be diminished impact for the overall story. As an alternative, Banaszynski convinced her editors of the importance of including explicit details about Dick's and Bert's sex lives.

Jacqui Banaszynski and her colleagues truly demonstrated the virtues of duty-based journalism. At virtually every step in the reporting process, they considered choices for gathering and then presenting information. They sought and told the truth as fully as possible, they acted with independence, and they chose alternatives to minimize harm.

Doing ethics in journalism is not just deciding between two choices, right and wrong, when facing an ethical dilemma. True ethical decision-making is much more difficult and complex. It's about developing a range of acceptable alternative actions and choosing from among them. It's about considering the consequences of those actions. And it's about basing decisions on obligation, on the principles of the journalist's duty to the public. True ethical decision-making is also about justification, the ability to explain dearly and fully the process of how and why decisions are made.

Ethical decision-making entails competition among values such as truth telling and compassion, courage and sensitivity, serving the public, and protecting individual rights. Indeed, ethical decision- making is a fundamental element of everyday journalism. Just as we think of writing, editing, and photography as essential skills of our craft, the ability to make good ethical decisions in the face of difficult challenges is also an indispensable skill, which can be learned and further developed with practice.

  • Bob Steele

    Bob Steele asks and answers lots of questions on a wide range of ethics, values, reporting and leadership issues. In his role as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values he has taught hundreds of workshops and thousands of journalists and media leaders at Poynter seminars since 1989.


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