I report for The Bronx Ink, a niche news website. In October 2011, two of our stories led to newsroom debates about our responsibilities towards sources. In our efforts to address these questions, most of which centered on protecting a subject in one way or another, I discovered more complex perspectives on the impact of a report on its sources.
I was the only journalist to cover the murder of Joel Rojas, a 24-year-old Mexican construction worker in Mott Haven, and that earned me the trust of his family. They allowed me to attend the funeral – with a camera. I filmed their emotional trauma – the mother who was now the only earning member in a household of six; the younger sister who was having a hard time clarifying that her brother was never involved with gangs; and the three-year-old daughter who didn’t understand why papi was going away in a box.
A particularly moving moment in the video has raised a debate around privacy. “Why does papi feel so cold?” asks Rojas’ infant daughter, standing next to his coffin. My editor and I are the only ones on the team who feel that this is crucial to conveying the extent of damage caused by Rojas’ death. All the other reporters feel that the moment is too private, and should be edited out.
The video remains unpublished — for now.
In the Rojas case, my involvement with the family led to a curiosity about support systems for families of homicide victims. I found a few relevant non-profits, but there seemed to be limited support from institutions like the Community Board and Community Council. I am now working on a story on how families cope with murder – legally, financially or emotionally.
This has led to yet another conflict about advising sources. I am tempted to direct the Rojas family to organizations and agencies that might help them navigate through this experience, but that will inevitably influence my story. My research on similar conflicts threw up questions on contemporary reporting methods, particularly where writers immerse themselves in a particular environment in order to give a more detailed account of private lives. The opposing views of Leon Dash’s “immersion journalism” and Alex Kotlowitz’s “journalism of empathy” just add to the confusion.
Two of our reporters covered a killing at a private apartment building in Mount Hope. They found no lock at the main entrance, because each time it was replaced the local gangs broke it. This building was their regular hangout, and the machines in the laundry room were filled with their stash of contraband.
This information and more was provided by one of the tenants, and corroborated by others. Since she hadn’t raised any concerns about privacy, her quotes were used on the record. Two days after the story was published, someone posted a comment calling the woman a snitch. The user also included the woman’s apartment number and other details.
Our source panicked and asked us to delete the comment and remove her name. This was a tough call, because the entire story was based on this source’s information. Listing her as anonymous affected the credibility of our report.
Hours later, a majority in the newsroom decided to take the entire story down.
“The feeling everyone feels is that it’s a totally rudderless ship,” said Julia Duin, the paper’s longtime religion reporter. “Nobody knows who’s running it. Is it the board of directors? We don’t know. There was a three-foot-long black snake in the main conference room the other day. We have snakes in the newsroom — the real live variety, at least. One of the security people gallantly removed it.”
Duin gave the quote with the understanding that other employees would be quoted as well. A month later, she was fired. But her reaction to the entire incident is an effective synopsis of what any reporter should consider before using a source in a story.
“To be fair, Shapira did call me to confirm my quote before the article ran. And I had agreed to go on the record,” wrote Duin. “But given the catastrophic professional fallout for me, I am left wondering if the Post reporter had a larger obligation to create more of a shield for the one source willing to speak to him on the record. Had Shapira gotten three people on the record instead of just one, would I still be employed? On May 6, he posted a comment on a Washington Post blog insisting that he takes good care of his sources. But he had not protected me when I went out on a limb to help him nail down a good story that needed telling.”
In the situations listed above, would explicit permission have solved the issue? Can giving sources an elaborate explanation on how their information will be used give journalist a better sense of their obligation?
A University of Illinois paper seems to disagree. It says: “Harm or embarrassment may come to certain individuals who are the subject of investigative studies. But requiring their advance permission is inappropriate, when the primary ethical obligation is to the public rather than to the data source.”
At a personal level, I still have reservations about using this as my journalistic ethos.