Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Question of Journalistic Integrity

A denizen of St. Louis, Missouri for the moment, I have followed, at times unwillingly and at times with interest, the story of the recent discovery of kidnappees Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck in St. Louis County.

To begin, a brief summary:
In October 2002, Shawn Hornbeck, then 11, mounted a bike in Washington County, Missouri, with the ostensible intention of visiting a friend. Despite the persistent efforts of his parents (the Akers), Hornbeck was unseen for over 4 years - and believed by many to be dead. Then, on January 8, 2007, in nearby Franklin County, 13-year-old William "Ben" Ownby turned up missing. A classmate provided the lead that a large white van was seen near the site of the kidnapping, and it was this van that eventually led the FBI investigators to Kirkland, Missouri - a reasonably wealthy suburb in St. Louis County - where not merely Ownby, but also Hornbeck, was "found in the residence of Michael Devlin, alleged kidnapper, who was promptly arrested and is being held at $1,000,000.00 bail under the charge of kidnapping Ownby.

"Among the most notable aspects of this case, if one can detach it from the human interest elements and the emotional pull of the boys' return, is how "classically" villainesque it paints the alleged kidnapper. Michael Devlin, gratuitously described in The National Ledger as a "300-pound pizza shop employee," grotesque and seedy with the requisite oversized glasses and greasy hair (forgive my editorialization). The gigantic white Ford Van with its sliding door, complete with tales of a gun (in Hornbeck's case) and duct tape (in Ownby's), is exactly what Mommy warned us about when we were little. Hornbeck, brainwashed in a classic manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, seems to have been granted a modicum of freedom during the years of captivity, even seen by his neighbors riding his bicycle, and some less cautious media sources suggest that he may have aided in the kidnapping of the younger boy.

On the surface, the joy is all. Hornbeck is reported as clutching his grandmother's hand and burying his face in his mother's shoulder upon the initial reunion - and his stepfather chuckled that he knew that Shawn would be all right when he asked for McDonald's on their first drive home. Ownby reportedly made his first request in front of the media - he wanted to go home and play his video games, which reportedly consumed him for a large portion of his first 24 hours home. The Ownbys and the Akers thanked God for hearing their prayers; the Akers criticized the false psychics whose aid they sought but who ultimately "foresaw" Hornbeck's demise; they felt legitimized for having sacrificed career and financial stability for their son.

I must be careful, here. I do not want to appear crass. I have full confidence in the joy of the two families' reunions; I vicariously share their delight and shock in the conclusion of the four years' story. The long mental recovery to which Hornbeck, at the least, must look toward seems daunting, and I wish both of the boys the best in recovering some normalcy in their lives.

"Normalcy," however, may be a while in coming. Short of the boys' changing their names, the families' relocating, and a great deal of psychological care - in addition to re-socialization and intensive education for Hornbeck - sensationalism may triumph. This is really the source of my discomfort. After my initial joyful reaction, my first comment upon hearing about the case was that if the captivity did not break the boys, then the media attention would. This was a bit ignorant, but I stand by part of its portent. Unbelievingly, I saw a TV advertisement for an Oprah episode devoted to an interview with the survivors. I became very angry: how could this be in the best interest of the boys? I begrudgingly accepted that there might me something gained by one "final" statement, so as to eschew hosts of other reporters potentially waiting around the proverbial corner.

Oprah, however, begins to inspire the tension I feel about journalistic integrity related to this case. She did not lack integrity herself; most people felt she handled the interview with grace. However, her probing of the Akers about whether or not they feared that their son had been sexually abused began to blur the line that tends to exist in situations involving minors. On one hand, minors' names tend to be concealed in the media, particularly in cases of such a sensitive nature as sexual abuse. But on the other hand, the names are already out - the cat is out of the bag, as it were. I suspect that few people with any familiarity with the case have failed to pose the question, however briefly. There seems to be little chance of the families avoiding like questions, certainly. My question is: when does media sensationalism move from inevitably probing and "rude" toward an almost unethical embracing of human misery? Can we draw this line?

I think the line is better articulated in another interesting side-story, which I initially heard debated on NPR but which has found its way to many articles as well. The accused, Michael Devlin, imprisoned not far from St. Louis, Missouri, is isolated in his own cell, and reporters are barred from visiting him. However, some time around January 20th, a young woman named Susannah Calahan appeared at the prison, identifying herself to guards as a "family friend." To Devlin, Calahan described herself as a college student interested in the case, and he provided her with an interview, even being quoted as confessing that "It's much easier talking to a stranger about these things than your own parents" [see quoted article].

Calahan, however, was not a family friend, nor an interested stranger. She was, in fact, a news correspondant for the New York Post. A student at the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, Calahan is a former university music- and sex-column journalist. She obtained an interview, though it is unclear whether or not she deceived Devlin in order to do so, and the Post printed the article. Although they certainly have the perogative to protest, Devlin's lawyers and their objections to the interview concern me less than the overarching question of journalistic integrity. Journalists so often walk the fine line of invasion and truth-seeking; this is familiar. When deception becomes a question, however, the integrity of the journalist herself is less alarming than the related dilemma about the integrity of journalists in general. Suddenly, a college student becomes, like Rita Skeeter, symbolic of all that many people find loathsome about journalism. Now, don't get me wrong. A large percentage of people were probably more thrilled with the new quotations and the new aspect that Calahan's interview obtained than concerned with its implications. And there are educated persons who have argued for the "guts" Calahan displayed in her dogged pursuit of the truth. Others, however, have a grimmer perspective.

We already knew that the media was inherently biased and truth inevitably ambiguous. We already knew that our society's attraction to the sensational tends to overshadow its desire for the "facts." But now, we start to wonder if in employing its ability to shape a societal consciousness, the media holds some clear responsibilities to maintain ethics to protect us from ourselves - ethics that Calahan was shirking. We may want to know everything at any cost - but are these costs eventually going to take their toll on journalism, if Machiavellian journalism ignores the ethics of honesty in order to obtain the ends of full disclosure?

I have likely taken this too far. After all, Devlin's account to Calahan was far from "full disclosure," and Oprah was hardly "immoral" in her questions to the Akers. Perhaps this particular story has inspired people to toe the ethical line but, ultimately, to remain on the better side. Regardless, it raised some important questions. When does it become ethically "wrong" to eschew truth in order to discover the truth, and when will it become dangerous enough threaten the ethereal ideal of Journalistic Integrity?

I'll let you know when I've gotten the scoop.


gledwood said...

Magistrates elected by the people? You'll be demanding politicians who REPRESENT the people next ...!

Hi I'm blog-hopping tonight & found yours by chance. Feel free to drop by mine I'm at

Take it easy. You have an interesting POV...

Ben Lebeaux said...

I think that Journalism has two main challenges right now: the first is negotiating blogs. News agencies have always sought to beat each other to the punch (and in that, have used tactics that you’ve found questionable), and blogs or ‘armature provided content’ are the Next Big Things. Sadly, though, blogs have also been eroding the tried and true form of gatekeeper news, of people we used to call ‘Editors’. In an effort to beat every other agency to the punch, agencies will publish information with confirming it. Then other agencies will rush to cover the published, unchecked information and eventually the echo chamber will fill.

The second challenge gives way to the first: I think journalism is still trying (and if it isn’t it sure as hell should be) to recover from just before the Iraq war. Those were the days, long ago now. At least two changes of rhetoric ago even (before War for Civilization, before even Spreading Democracy: this went all the way back to the imminent search for Weapons of Mass Destruction or ‘WMD’s’, which, I’m pretty sure, hasn’t gone very well). Blogs might represent something between news’ efforts to entertain and to get raw information to its audience: either way, agencies’ use of them must be to attract their audience.

This is what papers have to do: they have to report the truth. They have to make things written in the quotes were actually said. They have to protect their anonymous sources. They can not present someone else’s work as their own. They really ought to do some research to avoid looking like jackasses. And when they discover their mistakes they have to account for them immediately.

Beyond that…well I don’t really know. I think I remember Vonnegut writing about when he was a cub reporter, getting money writing up the police report. When he needed a quote from the deceased’s family, he was advised to call the family and deliver them the news as someone somehow connected to the death, not as a reporter. He’d then write down their reaction and print it. Vonnegut didn’t really like this job.

What Vonnegut did was sleazy. And whenever a reporter makes themselves a part of the story, especially with CNN news anchors crawling into mock-ups of spider holes to fill up the 24 hour day, we should be on our guard. But I doubt that half the stories we read, and certainly most of the ‘important’ stories that come to light would ever escape without some sleazy tactics.

I don’t know what Calahan said to her subject in the cell. I doubt that Hornbeck started telling his story to a woman with a pen and paper without considering that maybe, maybe, what he was saying might get re-told. Regardless, she should have announced herself and her intentions, and if she hadn’t…well it’s a bit too late for anything really. But she should have. (I don’t have much sympathy for the guards that let her in despite her sleazy tactics: they should be so lucky that that type of security breach was perpetrated by a reporter instead of a possible accomplice.)

Beyond that…until someone gets physically hurt, until a reporter destroys property…then I say sleazy is allowed. As long as they follow the aforementioned rules (feel free to provide your own) then sleazy is OK. Reporters’ dirty tricks come out in the stories they write. Their subjects, however, would not be so forthcoming. And, for the time being at least, I’m willing to sacrifice some discomfort for opportunity to know.

Ben Lebeaux said...

PS: The New York Times doesn't allow its writers to vote in any contest. Why? NYT Reporters tell their readers its because the Times wants their reporters to make the news, not make it. A good policy? Too much on the other side?

Anonymous said...

Huh... I like that last comment. In regards to the longer response, I agree. Perhaps my love for the worst series ever to have existed on television, Lois and Clark, during my formative years led some fuckeduppedness. For instance, I like investigative journalism, which inevitably means some shadiness, if not deception.

But I do think that in the case of Calahan and Devlin (Hornbeck, incidentally, was the child, not the interviewee/kidnapper) there was a great deal of outcry in part because the New York Post beat the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to the story... less because of ethics. Nevertheless, NPR debated the ethics of journalism for hours, and there was a clear divide. I think I'm on your side of it, but I think there does hit a point when I draw the line. For example, somehow this is ok because she went to the accused, but what if she had used the same kind of tactic to talk to the boys? Would that still have been ok?

Ben Lebeaux said...

First off, my PS should have read something to the effect of "NYT Reporters are supposed to report the news, not make it" instead of "make it" twice. Which was wrong. And looks silly.

Everyone watched "Lois and Clark." Don't be so hard on yourself.

As far as the reporter using the same tactic to speak with the, that probably wouldn't have been fair game; I think that in some cases federal/state law should trump the mores of any particular profession, including journalism. And I think that there's a law prohibiting the use of minors' names without their consent in print.

Anonymous said...

Well, the legality is hazy, though, because their names were reported as "missing," so their names were reported again as "found." And a large extent has been with pretty blatant parent approval. But I see your point nevertheless.