Journalism’s collateral damage

Here’s a question for you.

Let’s say you’re a reporter, and you’ve discovered a nice juicy story. One that sheds unexpected light on its subject, and touches on broader social themes. It’s a great story; it’s a lot of work to research and write, but the end product is personally and professionally rewarding.

All that being said, the story might also have unintended consequences for the person or people involved. What do you do?

We have two case studies, one in big capital letters and another in smaller type. One national, one local. In the former, we already know the repercussions; in the latter, they remain to be seen.

Story #1: “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” by Caleb Hannan, posted on Grantland.com. It begins as a sports story about a new type of putter (yes, the golf club) that’s attracted a lot of favorable attention, and about its reclusive inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt.

She initially consented to the story on the understanding that it focus on the putter, not on her own story. But while conducting research, Hannan discovers an entirely unexpected life story — including the fact that Dr. V is transgendered. He decides he can’t write the article without including her story. When he informs her of that, she reacts angrily.

And then kills herself.

It’s a damn good story, very well written, and received widespread initial praise from the sports journalism community. And then came the backlash: some journalists and many activists lambasted Hannan for telling a very personal story against the subject’s will.

That’s the big national story and I think the answer is clear, at least in retrospect: Even though you’re a journalist who’s done your job, you don’t always have a “right” to tell a story, and your readers don’t have “a right to know,” if the consequences are so immense.

Now for Story #2. On Sunday January 12, the Burlington Free Press published an article by Mike Donoghue about a woman who claims to have been hospitalized against her will in the psychiatric unit at Fletcher Allen Health Care.

That, in itself, would not attract the Freeploid’s attention. But the patient is Christina Schumacher, whose teenage son Gunnar was killed in a murder-suicide committed by her ex-husband, Ludwig “Sonny” Schumacher Jr. That makes her story, and her hospitalization, a matter of interest to the Freeploid and its readers.

Donoghue assiduously reports her side of the story, and recounts his repeated efforts to get the hospital and other officials to respond.

Which they can’t. The law prevents them from releasing information about patients, the circumstances of a hospitalization, and the reasoning behind their actions. Donoghue damn well knows this, but he doesn’t do a lot to make it clear in his story: he depicts a stonewall of “no comment” from official sources.

The problem is, there are very good reasons for this legal restraint. And there are very good reasons to wonder whether Donoghue’s story will have unintended consequences for Schumacher in the future. Very personal details of her hospitalization and her life have been published in the state’s largest newspaper and posted online for any and all to read.

Schumacher voluntarily spoke to Donoghue. But hell, she’s in a hospital for psychiatric problems. Is she capable of granting consent, of deciding whether to speak with a reporter? Will she ever regret Donoghue’s story in the future? It’s obviously too soon to tell, but I think there’s a very good chance she will. Let’s say she enjoys a full recovery, moves to another state, and tries to resume her career. When prospective employers Google her, they will certainly find Donoghue’s article. What then?

In terms of black and white, Donoghue was absolutely within his rights to interview someone who wants to talk with him and to write her story, and the Freeploid was within its rights to publish. In this case, unlike Caleb Hannan’s, the subject gave her consent.

But there’s a substantial gray area surrounding this story. Should he have considered the quality of Schumacher’s consent? Should he have considered the reasons why patients are accorded broad privacy protections? Should he have considered the possible future impact on Schumacher, to have her publicly identified as a psychiatric patient with the full details of her case, so shortly after her family was destroyed?

Regarding Caleb Hannan’s article, Jeff Chu, a reporter for Fast Company, had this to say:

Sometimes the right thing for us to do as journalists is to honor a life by not telling a story. It’s not always ours to tell.

I wish Mike Donoghue and his editors had pondered that idea before publishing Christina Schumacher’s story. As for me personally, I wish they’d made a different decision. Journalism — even first-rate journalism — ought to be tempered by humanity.  

One thought on “Journalism’s collateral damage

  1. Of course, we’ll never know how many stories have been spiked by reporters for humanitarian reasons. Maybe every reporter has a few tucked away as private memories.

    Then again, most of those who I witness on the national stage are reporters with the ethics of heat seeking missiles, tempered by cowardice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *