Are we journalists first?

The longstanding debate about whether and when a reporter can intervene in a story is rekindled in the age of inequality

What would you do? This image of a man brushing a girl’s teeth with the toothbrush of the girl’s HIV-positive mother, from Sonia Nazario’s 1997 series on children of drug addicts, outraged readers who wondered why the journalists didn’t do something to stop it. (Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times)

In the fall of 1997, the Los Angeles Times published an ambitious 6,500-word front-page feature on the lives of the children of drug addicts. It was written by a young reporter named Sonia Nazario, who was the Times’ urban-affairs writer. She was no stranger to the kind of journalism that pressed her hard against human suffering, beyond the codified barriers that separate source and subject. Three years earlier, while working on a similarly immersive series on childhood hunger, she watched while one family ate three hotdogs, total, for dinner.

She watched children beg their way into play dates for the promise of a meal. She watched a teacher handing out apples be thronged by more hungry students than he could feed.

She never offered help. When a photographer she was working with gave a bag of groceries to one family, Nazario felt he had crossed an ethical line. “I think what was beaten into me early as a reporter was you don’t intervene or change a story that you’re writing about,” says Nazario. As she would patiently explain to each subject at the beginning of her reporting, she was there to observe, to tell a story that alerts the public to problems and hopefully motivates others to address those problems. It is a traditional notion of objectivity that has been American journalism’s defining ideal for more than a century.

But the details Nazario gathered in “Orphans of Addiction,” the piece on the children of addicts, were chilling. She wrote about children being slapped and sleeping on a urine- and semen-soaked mattress; a 3-year-old named Tamika Triggs cut her foot on glass and was left to tend to the wound herself. The most troubling scene, a photograph taken while Nazario was absent, showed a man brushing Triggs’ teeth with her HIV-positive mother’s toothbrush. Her mother had left the room to deal with her bleeding gums.

Readers were understandably outraged. But instead of training their ire at the government agencies whose job it was to protect children, they went after Nazario. Hundreds of readers wrote to the Times criticizing her for not stopping the abuse; some included toothbrushes with their letters. “Was winning an award so important to you that you would risk the life of a 3-year-old child to do so?” wrote one. A child-welfare investigator filed a complaint with the police against Nazario. The pushback against the story was so fervent that the American Journalism Review published a piece that took Nazario to task for her failure to intervene.

The irony is that Nazario’s story had real impact: Within 24 hours of its publication, child-abuse reports in Los Angeles County increased by 20 percent, and eventually rose 45 percent. The county ordered an audit of the Child Welfare Agency and reorganized its reporting hotlines. More federal and state funds were allocated to programs for addicted mothers. The story also improved the lives of the families she’d profiled: The county placed Tamika Triggs in a foster home; her mother was admitted to a choice rehabilitation program. She had forced her readers to empathize and motivated agencies to action—in many ways a best-case scenario for what such journalism can accomplish. “If you can put people in the middle of the misery and have them watch that misery unfold, that’s often the most compelling way to write about these kinds of stories,” says Nazario.

When a junkie he was interviewing went into withdrawal and threw up, David Simon gave him money to go get high.

Yet it’s not hard to understand why readers balked at how Nazario handled her uncomfortably close portrayal of the poor. For one thing, it is human nature to want to help someone who is suffering. But such stories also contain complex and controversial questions of race, class, and power. The journalists who pursue them may consider their motives clear—to focus attention on societal problems in the hopes that they will be solved. But beyond the profession, the interpretation of motives and results when a (typically white) middle-class journalist presumes to tell the story of a poor family (often black or Latino) can be something quite different. Where the journalist sees dispassionate truth-telling, a reader may see exploitation or judgment.

The tradition of immersive reporting goes back to the rise of modern American journalism in the 19th century, and the role of the journalist within the genre—particularly when covering the poor—has always been a matter of some debate. Nellie Bly stunned readers when she feigned mental illness to expose conditions in mental institutions, embedding herself in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum to write Ten Days in a Mad-House, the famous New York World series that eventually became a book. It was a feat that changed journalism at the time, but the ethics of her intimate immersion would undoubtedly be scrutinized differently today. How the Other Half Lives, the 1890 book by journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis that documented poverty on New York’s Lower East Side, is widely hailed as groundbreaking for Riis’ intimacy with his subjects. In the decades following its publication, the city reformed tenement housing and sweatshops.

At the time of Riis’ work, objectivity was only just emerging as journalism’s guiding principle, but Riis—who had been trained in traditional newspaper journalism, having worked as a police reporter for The New York Evening Sun after coming to the United States in the 1870s—did not look at his subjects through the empathic lens one might expect from a reporter crusading on behalf of the poor. He blamed the poor, in part, for their plight; he wrote with racial insensitivity about Chinese and Italian immigrants. And in describing tenements in the introduction to his book, Riis wrote that they “throw off a scum of forty thousand human wrecks to the island asylums and workhouses year by year . . . to prey upon our charities.”

A century later, the “objectivity” that failed to temper Riis’ judgment of the poor was, for better and for worse, the law of the media land. It was precisely the detachment that objective journalism dictates that fueled the criticism of Nazario’s story about children of addicts. In the years since her story appeared, the grip of strictly defined objectivity on journalism has been weakened by the democratizing effects of the internet—and has been thoroughly dismissed by many in the digital vanguard as an impossible ideal that rendered journalism lifeless and riddled with false equivalency. Once the public was able to talk back to journalists, the argument goes, the idea that one reporter gets to tell the definitive story of anything—let alone something as sprawling and intractable as poverty—seemed a relic of the 20th century.

But the debate about what journalists who cover the poor owe their subjects remains unsettled, and the answer is as important today as ever. Income inequality, rising steadily since the 1970s, is now at its highest level in America since 1928. If one of journalism’s duties is to hold the public accountable for the realities of democracy, then it is crucial to tell the stories of those who are losing out. This year’s Pulitzer Prizes suggested as much, with five awards given to stories of poverty and inequality—from a Tampa Bay Times investigation into the squalid conditions of housing allocated for the city’s homeless population to Eli Saslow’s comprehensive series on food stamps in The Washington Post.

The shot This 1993 photograph of a starving girl in Sudan, by photojournalist Kevin Carter, became an iconic image in the debate over journalists’ role in the stories they cover. It won a Pulitzer Prize, but also drew criticism after Carter admitted that he waited 20 minutes to get the perfect shot before chasing the vulture away. Two months after winning the Pulitzer, Carter, who had a history of depression, committed suicide at age 33. (Kevin Carter / Corbis)

Reporting that takes readers inside the lives of the poor is arguably journalism’s most powerful tool to illustrate what might otherwise be just a statistic. “Inequality is a chart on if it doesn’t also include the voice of that person who is struggling, with a job at McDonald’s, to feed, clothe, and house a small child,” says Bruce Shapiro, who runs The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a nonprofit whose mission is to improve media coverage of trauma, violence, and conflict.

But that type of coverage also forces journalists into unsettled ethical terrain. Last fall, when New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott published “Invisible Child,” a 28,000-word profile of Dasani Coates, a 12-year-old homeless girl in Brooklyn, the Times’ Public Editor said it was the longest investigation the paper had ever published all at once. The paper partnered with the Legal Aid Society to collect the donations that poured in for Coates, who overnight became a symbol of inequality in America. (Wearing a fur-trimmed coat, she was presented as a guest of honor at New York City Public Advocate Letitia James’ inauguration in January.)

When the piece was snubbed by the Pulitzers, though, some journalists tore into Elliott’s process, much as people had torn into Nazario’s process 15 years earlier: Why hadn’t she used Coates’ last name? Had Elliott’s presence allowed Coates to interact differently with the world? And where had the reporter been when the child found herself in danger? CJR published two articles on its website that captured the polarized reaction to the piece, one that criticized what the writer and others saw as the Times’ questionable judgment, and another that described it as a masterpiece. At a time when the formats and assumptions of journalism are being redefined—when the wall between sources and writers is regularly breached, and the very definition of “journalist” is debated—the rules for how reporters should write about the lives of the underclass have become even more vague.

More than 20 years after Alex Kotlowitz embedded with Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers, two boys in a Chicago housing project, to report There Are No Children Here, his seminal nonfiction book on the forces of poverty, he still gets emails from readers asking what happened to the boys. Kotlowitz interprets this as a sign that his work—for which he’s coined the phrase, “the journalism of empathy”—is having its intended effect. But his role in the answer to the question posed by his readers is complicated.

While reporting the article for The Wall Street Journal that became the basis for his book, Kotlowitz held strictly to the newspaper code: Have no effect on the story, maintain objective boundaries and, foremost, do not exchange money with sources. But as his reporting evolved from a newspaper series to a book project, these boundaries became difficult to always maintain. When a member of the boys’ family landed in jail, for instance—in part because of something Kotlowitz reported in one of his newspaper stories—Kotlowitz used some of his prize money for bail. He remains deeply connected to both boys and helped them obtain scholarships to better schools. After the book was published in 1991, Pharoah, then 12, lived with Kotlowitz and his wife for six years.

Even the firmest barrier between journalist and subject—money—isn’t easy to uphold when sources who have so little provide so much of their time to a reporter. Kotlowitz splits all proceeds from the book with the boys, a decision he justifies because it couldn’t alter the story, since he made the arrangement after the book was published. But years later, Kotlowitz confronted the issue again, when a source of another potential book project asked for a share of the proceeds up front. “I called various writers and was amazed at the breadth of responses I got,” says Kotlowitz. “From somebody who said, ‘Absolutely no way. You’re going to have to turn your back on this project and move on,’ to a documentary filmmaker who said, ‘Hey Alex, grow up, if you’re not willing to do this you might as well get into another line of business.’ ” Ultimately, he abandoned the project.

Maintaining such barriers strains at what feels like acceptable human behavior—even if you’re following a codified set of ethics. While reporting his series on food stamps for The Washington Post, Eli Saslow provided the occasional meal for the people he was writing about. But the Post’s ethics policy required that he not intervene more. “My job is not to advocate, and I’m not there to feed people,” he says. “But it’s difficult sometimes. Maybe I’m spending all day with a family as their fridge is nearly empty, and as they’re trying to figure out what to do, and then I go back to my hotel and have a microbrew and take down notes about the day. There’s something about that that feels not quite satisfying, obviously, and a little bit not right.”

David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire, drew the line at exchanging any money for journalism during his years reporting on Baltimore’s drug-riddled neighborhoods for The Baltimore Sun. But while writing The Corner, a nonfiction book depicting the lives of drug dealers on a notorious corner of Fayette Street in the city, Simon massaged his stance when an addict started going through withdrawal. He’d been talking to Simon for three hours, instead of hustling money for his next hit.

“He throws up and I don’t know what to do,” says Simon. “I said, ‘You know, you gave me three hours of time, here’s $10.’ Knowing that he’s now going to go get high. I told him, ‘I’m not going to do it every time, but if you were the state senator from the 46th District and I was covering the legislature in Annapolis, and you gave me three hours to explain what was happening on Bill 76, I’d have bought you lunch and put it on the expense account.’ ” Simon pauses. “I don’t know? What’s the answer? Was I not supposed to get him high?”

By the time Sonia Nazario began reporting Enrique’s Journey, her Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative turned nonfiction book that follows a 17-year-old Honduran boy’s crossing into the United States to reunite with his mother, her ironclad standards about when it’s okay to intervene had shifted a bit. The “toothbrush incident,” as she calls it, had convinced her that if someone were in “imminent danger,” she would act to protect him.

As she prepared for the story, Nazario tried to think through what she would consider “imminent danger” for Enrique. In reality, though, she evaluated the challenges as they came. After two months, on Enrique’s eighth attempt to get to the border, he was tired and eating one meal a day. He was miserable, Nazario reasoned, but not facing any immediate threat. By the time they arrived in Mexico City, Enrique had to contact his mother. Nazario watched for two weeks as he desperately tried to come up with $10 to buy a phone card, washing cars for the cash. “I’ve got a cellphone in my purse the whole time. But I don’t offer it to him, because I felt that would change the course of his story,” she says.

Nazario also declined to help other people along the way. Every day, 30 or 40 people would ask her for food, and mostly she said no. Part of her reasoning was practical—she couldn’t feed everyone, and she worried that if she started to help, she would be mobbed for money and food. Still, making those decisions wasn’t easy. “I think that every day those decisions are a gray area. Is this person miserable, or in imminent danger? Are there safety nets? Are there other people they can go to for help?” she says.

Kotlowitz respects Nazario’s rigorous approach to her stories but ultimately disagrees with it. It is a debate the two reporters, who worked together at the Journal, have had many times over the years. “I would have let him use [my cellphone],” says Kotlowitz. “There wouldn’t have been any question about it.” In his estimation, letting Enrique use her cellphone wouldn’t have changed readers’ understanding of the fundamental difficulty of his journey, especially in an age when such interventions can be explained in footnotes or announced in the first person.

But that’s one journalist’s opinion. David Simon called Nazario’s ethics “pretty astonishing and admirable.” He added: “That’s more discipline than I would’ve had, but I’m not saying I’m right. In some ways, I’m sure I’m not right.”

The reality is that for all the efforts journalists make to avoid influencing their subjects, the most meaningful realms of influence are beyond the reach of any reporter. It’s a lesson Simon learned when one of the subjects in The Corner, a man named Gary McCullough, died of an overdose while Simon was writing the book. “So you’re there, you’re in the world, you’ve got your notepad,” says Simon. “If you say something, if you do something, how do you know that the outcome of your book is truly the outcome of your book? I guess you don’t, and nothing’s pure. But Gary McCullough taught me the vanity of thinking that just because some middle-class white dude showed up in your neighborhood with a notepad, and he’s a good listener, that it changes anything. If there was anyone I would’ve done things for—and did do things for—it was Gary. And it didn’t matter.” 

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Alexis Fitts and Nicola Pring Alexis Sobel Fitts is a CJR assistant editor, and Nicola Pring is a former CJR intern