September 17, 2009

The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese child haunted Alysia Sofios for years.

The television reporter recalls discussing the late Kevin Carter’s famous photograph in college and feeling disturbed when none of her classmates said they would have helped the child.

Sofios, 33, remembered that photograph and those feelings years later when she decided to open her home to four members of a family traumatized by murder, abuse and incest. The relatives moved in with her after her initial coverage of the story for Fox affiliate KMPH in Fresno, Calif., but she never told her news director about the arrangement.

“I kept it a secret,” she said in a telephone interview.

Now she’s written a book about their relationship: “Where Hope Begins: One Family’s Journey Out of Tragedy — and the Reporter Who Helped Them Make It.” It’s a story about the family’s healing and resilience, but it’s also a study in the blurred line between personal and professional ethics.

In March 2004, Sofios reported on a police standoff for her station’s radio affiliate. Marcus Wesson was holed up and refused to allow two nieces to pick up their children. News reports say that Wesson fancied himself a messiah, secluded his family and talked about “making children for the Lord,” using his relatives as his harem. Police later learned he had 17 children, some fathered with his daughters and nieces.

When the standoff ended, authorities discovered that nine children ages 1 to 25 had been fatally shot. The dead 25-year-old had gunpowder residue on her hands, leading authorities to believe she had killed the others and herself at Wesson’s behest. Wesson was charged with nine counts of murder and additional charges of sexual abuse.

Sofios was assigned to talk to neighbors and interview relatives. She “camped outside the house,” running into Wesson’s relatives who’d come back to retrieve belongings. As she scored interviews with family members, Sofios found her compassion growing.

“I could tell that they were suicidal, fragile and completely brainwashed,” she said.
Sofios said Wesson’s daughter Kiani, who was about Sofios’ age, especially affected her. “She had two kids by her father, who killed them,” she said, “and she’s still standing here like a robot, supporting him.”
Two months later, Wesson’s wife Elizabeth called Sofios and asked for help. During the conversation, Elizabeth Wesson burst into tears. The surviving relatives had had a hard time finding work, she told Sofios, and a relative with whom they were staying had asked them to leave.

“No one would help us,” Elizabeth Wesson said in an interview.

Sofios said she called around, thinking she would first find someone to assist them, then do a story about that. But no one offered to help.

Finally, “I guess my human instinct kicked in,” she said. She flashed back to that journalism ethics class at Michigan State, where she and her peers had discussed Carter’s Sudan photo. She decided to invite the Wessons to stay with her.

“I thought, what would be the worst that could happen?” she said. “I could get fired. But I thought this was bigger than my job. I knew I would regret it for sure if I didn’t take them in.”

Sofios said she didn’t consider herself covering the Wessons anymore because she had been reassigned to the morning show, away from hard news. Still, she told no one about the arrangement, thinking it would only be “for a few days.”

Elizabeth Wesson slept on her sofa. Daughters Kiani and Gypsy shared the second bedroom with a niece, Rosie Solorio.

“It was very strange at first,” Sofios said, “but they were so traumatized by everything that had happened, trying to help them heal took over.”

Part of that help was acquainting the women with society. Sofios said they had never seen a movie or visited a restaurant before moving in with her. “The more I introduced them to things, the more I saw their potential,” she said. “They became integrated into my life.”

That October, when Sofios suffered a severe concussion in a head-on collision, the women helped nurse her back to health, she said. Eight months later, Marcus Wesson went to trial.

Sofios said she was tapped to help with the coverage because colleagues knew she had a rapport with the family. Although she said she and the Wesson family didn’t discuss the trial because of a gag order, she decided she’d tell her news director, Roger Gadley, about the living arrangement. But the conversation took a different turn.

Both Gadley, who has since retired, and Sofios describe that discussion the same way: Sofios didn’t say much before he interrupted and asked whether she could cover the family objectively. When she said she could, he didn’t press the issue and she didn’t offer more details.

Gadley said it was obvious from Sofios’ stories and tips that she had a connection with the family. “Reporters will protect their sources — hold them close — and that’s kind of a normal part of the journalistic business,” he said. “I knew she was pulling back on some things — I didn’t understand the reason why — but I still trusted her.”

Gadley said he didn’t know about the living arrangement until being interviewed for this story, although he suspected Sofios had loaned the relatives a hand. “I’m a little flabbergasted,” he said. “I had the impression that they stayed overnight a couple of times.”

Sofios’ overall contribution to the coverage was peripheral, Gadley said. “Wesson himself was the story,” he said, along with how police had handled the chain of events.

He said he was bothered “a little bit” that she kept the arrangement a secret — and said it probably would have concerned him at the time had he known. This far removed from the situation, he said, it would be hard to say what he would have done.

Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and current news director of KOMU-TV in Columbia, Mo., said Sofios’ compassion is understandable, but she should have been more up-front with her boss.

“She probably reacted like a lot of us would want to,” Woelfel said. “On the other hand, that’s not what you’d expect from a news organization.”

Sofios, he said, “really needed to do some full disclosure immediately: ‘I did what my heart told me to as a human being.’ Then give the news managers a chance to decide how to handle it.”

Sofios might rationalize that she wasn’t directly involved with the story, but viewers who knew some of the Wessons were living with her might disagree, Woelfel said. Even now, five years later, the revelation might leave a bad taste with some viewers, he said.

“We want our reputation as a news organization to be impeccable,” Woelfel said.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University in New York, said Sofios’ situation reminds him of immersion journalism, in which a reporter will live with or follow a subject for a length of time.

“In general, close proximity to someone you’re covering brings challenges to keeping your balance,” he said. “For the sources, the reporter and the consumers, boundaries do have relevance.”

Shapiro said journalists have a responsibility when telling someone’s story to be transparent about any unusual relationship, both to inform the public of anything that might color their opinions and to protect the subject from feeling exploited.

That said, reporters shouldn’t shy away from compassion, he said. Even Carter, the photographer who took the photo of the starving child, shooed the vulture away, Shapiro said.

“Personally, there are times when our duties as a human being transcend our craft practices. It’s important to be a person first,” Shapiro said. “I think it’s good to make those choices — and important to have a conversation with yourself and your colleagues and your subjects: Can you do the story justice?”

Marcus Wesson was convicted of all charges and received the death penalty. Today, Elizabeth and Gypsy Wesson remain Sofios’ roommates. “The way I feel about my daughters is the way I feel toward Alysia,” Elizabeth Wesson said. Gypsy named her daughter Alysia, after Sofios.

Sofios now freelances for the same TV station in Fresno. Seeing the Wessons’ struggles firsthand, Sofios said, has made her more sensitive to how news coverage affects victims. “I don’t want to be in a field where we can’t kind of have human instincts,” she said.

Although she knows her actions were unorthodox, she has no regrets. “I know people will scrutinize my decision,” Sofios said. “I sleep well at night.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Sofios’ alma mater. She graduated from Michigan State University.

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