The Tough Choice
(Sources Who Threaten Suicide)
By Teresa Allen
It was an accident, the dentist told the reporter in a quavering voice. The procedure had been routine. He hadn't meant to fumble the porcelain crown that led to the death of the young patient who ended up inhaling it.(1)
He would be professionally ruined and humiliated before his peers if the local newspaper published his name. If the story came out, he told the reporter, he would have no choice but to kill himself.
Is the threat of suicide ever reason enough to withhold a name or even scrap a news story? Under what circumstances?
Consider the case of a World War II (2) double agent who in 1976 volunteers to go on record with a Texas newspaper - then gets cold feet the night before publication and threatens to commit suicide if his name is revealed. Are old war secrets worth a man's life?
In a similar case, a Seattle superior court judge, (3) who specializes in juvenile cases, kills himself after a newspaper reports that he has a history of sexually abusing young boys. Prior to publication, the judge, who knew the story was about to break, withdrew from seeking a third term on the bench and leaked his retirement plan. Was the judge's private life still subject to the public's right to know?
The editors and reporters who grappled with these pre-publication ethical dilemmas, and in some cases the tragic aftermath, agree that a news agency cannot allow itself to be manipulated through extortion or blackmail even if a source threatens to end his or her life. But along with thi stance comes a responsibility to protect the troubled source. Newspapers and other media organizations confronted with what media ethicist Lou Hodges calls "the tough choice" (4) must look at each case individually and weigh all mitigating circumstances before making a final decision.
"When you face the risk of someone taking their life, the story must demonstrate a genuine, compelling public need to know that goes way beyond interest," Hodges says. Moreover, he adds, "It has been my experience that in many of these cases, the problems can be worked out with a source by simply waiting on the story, by not immediately publishing." (5) At the very least, according to Hodges, when a suicide threat is made and the news agency decides to immediately publish anyway, "reasonable steps" (6) must be taken to ensure the safety of the source, whether that means contacting mental health officials or a close relative of the source. To not do so is both professionally and ethically irresponsible.
Hodges, a professor at Washington & Lee University, criticizes the Dallas-Times-Herald (7) handling of the spy who decided to come forward and reveal that he had divulged U.S. oil secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II. (The paper would report that the spy had been persuaded by the FBI to become a double agent in 1971.) The night before the story was scheduled to run, Norman J. Rees telephoned the Times-Herald to ask about the publication date of the story and whether he would be identified. When he learned it was scheduled for the next day, and that his name would be used, he told newspaper officials that their decision left him "no alternative" but to kill himself. The story was published on schedule and Rees was found the next day dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Following Rees's death, the newspaper issued the following statement:
"From time to time, newspapers receive threats about stories from people attempting to protect their identities. In our judgment, if a story is newsworthy and supported by the facts it is our policy to publish. In this instance it was decided that the story could not be suppressed, even in the face of Mr. Rees's threats." (8)
For Hodges, the decision-making lacked basic humanity. In retrospect, he would have held the story to allow time to talk down the source to make sure the source at the very least would be protected from himself.
"There was a similar case around this time involving a leader in the Klu Klux Klan. Apparently a reporter from the New York Times got wind of the fact that the leader, Daniel Burros, was Jewish and (the reporter) thought this was relevant to his role with the KKK. Well, the guy heard about the story and told the reporter that a story would ruin him and his rolewith the KKK. If they did run it, he threatened suicide. The day the story appeared, he shot (and killed) himself.
"In both of these cases, I would have insisted that (the newspaper) hold the story for publications for another date in order to have time to notify people who could take care of them," Hodges says. "While it may have been determined that the story needed to be told, I'm not sure what problems a delay would have presented." And never, Hodges says, just in case anyone asks, is competition between news agencies a reason to publish a story before its time. (9)
In agreement was David Halvorsen, at the time an assistant editor of the Chicago Times . In a column about the handling of the Times-Herald story, he wrote: " ... We find it difficult to construct a set of circumstances to justify going into print with the story. There was an alternative option: Pull the story off the schedule and work with Rees to seek a solution." (10)
Responses from within and without the industry, quoted in a retrospective piece on the Times-Herald dilemma in the May 1976 edition of The Quill, ranged from support-- "... the suicide threat, like any form of blackmail, cannot be allowed to become an effective impediment to the flow of legitimate, important news"--to outrage from a reader who wrote the New York Times: "To what higher moral code do newsmen adhere than we mortals do? The First Amendment may give them the freedom to print the news, but why are they somehow obligated to print knowingly a story that may lead to a man's death, and indeed, what purpose is served?" (11)
The fact that Rees approached the Times-Herald and volunteered interviews about his spy activities swayed such newspaper figures as James B. King, then the managing editor of the Seattle Times. Not using Rees' s name, King commented in The Quill , was not a viable option.
"Norman Rees had admitted to espionage. His name was important to the story. To have used 'a retired oil engineer' would have cast suspicion on scores of others." (12)
Agreeing with King was Charles Seib of the Washington Post who said that "assuming the facts were correctly stated," (13) he believed that the story passed the scrutiny of being a valid public interest story. Asked if the story could have been published without Rees's' name, he responded:
"It is difficult to see how that could have been done effectively without omitting much of the specific information. It also undoubtedly would have been only a matter of time before the name was disclosed ..." (14)
In the case of the Northern California dentist who bobbled the dental crown, The Marin Independent Journal decided not to name the dentist who started the chain of events that led to the death of his patient. But only after heated newsroom debate over the public's right to know.
A vague story circulating in the community about a young woman who had died following a visit to her dentist prompted Journal city editor Nels Johnson to assign a reporter to look into the matter. As part of the research, the reporter called the dentist, identified herself and her newspaper, and conducted a lengthy interview about the events in question. The dentist told the reporter (15) he accidently fumbled a dental crown while performing a routine procedure on 37-year-old Angela Giusti who first swallowed it, then at his urging, coughed it up and tragically inhaled it in the process. Had she simply swallowed it, doctors later said, it undoubtedly would have passed through her digestive system with little fan-fare. While this could have been fodder for a malpractice suit, the victim's family sympathized with the dentist and decided against it.) When it became clear the crown was lodged in the bronchial tubes leading to her lungs, the dentist urged Giusti to immediately seek medical attention. Instead, according to police reports, Giusti returned to her job to work out the day, but later drove to the hospital where a routine procedure was scheduled to remove the crown. During the procedure, Giusti had a rare reaction to a local anesthetic that triggered cardiac arrest and caused her sudden death.
During the interview with the reporter, the dentist spoke in detail about his feelings surrounding the tragedy and what had happened in his office:
"The crown just slipped out of my fingers. It just slipped from my hand. When it went down, she lurched forward and kind of gagged. I reached for it but it was gone and there was nothing I could do about it. She was a beautiful, healthy girl. ... This has all been a nightmare." (16)
Less than an hour after the interview concluded, the dentist called the reporter and demanded that his identity be kept a secret and his comments deleted from the story. His career would be over and his life ruined if the community knew his identity, he said. When reminded that he knew he was talking on the record to a reporter, the dentist took his case to the newspaper's editors and publisher. All were non-committal about how the newspaper would handle the story. Meanwhile, the reporter continued to research the story. She found that the dentist had not used a dental dam during the procedure, a practice that is recommended but not required by the American Dental Association. (A dental closes off the back of the throat so that objects, such as crowns and other metal material, cannot be swallowed or inhaled.) The reporter also contacted the hospital for an explanation of Giusti's death. The hospital referred all calls to its media relations office and refused to reveal the name of the emergency room physician who handled Giusti's case.
As the days slipped by the dentist became more and more distraught. He repeatedly called the reporter at home, begging her to drop the story. He revealed that he was seeing a priest and attending a grief therapy session to "help me understand what has happened, to help me come to terms with this." (17) If he was named in the story, he finally revealed during one of these discussions, he would consider taking his life.
The debate in the Independent Journal newsroom was never over whether the story should be published. Most reporters and editors agreed that the story was timely, newsworthy and would even serve as a learning experience for other dentists who also didn't bother with cumbersome dental dams. The pressing questions was whether or not the newspaper should publish the name of the dentist.
"We looked at it from all sides and weighed each issue before deciding to go (publish the story) without his name," (18) says Johnson.
"The reporter was leaning towards running the name, saying it was the public's right to know. But we knew the publicity would ruin him, and the truth was, he really wasn't the cause of the woman's death. And we didn't have the name of the attending physician so it didn't seem fair to name one but not the other."
The decision, Johnson says, was "basically a fairness issue" and was not based on the suicide threat. Even without it, he adds, the end result would have been the same. The fact that the victim's family was sympathetic to the dentist also helped in the resulting behavior. Initially the newspaper feared an over-reaction from its readers, demanding to know the name of the dentist. But, in fact, there were few calls regarding the matter.
There is no serious ethical debate for ethicist Lee Wilkins, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia, when it comes to the question of protecting the identity of the dentist. While she would have liked the Independent Journal to have published a note alongside the story, explaining why the dentist's name had been withheld, she is adamant that the right decision was made.
"The purpose of the story is what is critical when making this decision," she says. "If this was a story about doctors blatantly doing bad things, then naming names would be crucial. But how far can you take this? This was a freak accident. The dentist may have been involved - but he didn't cause the death. I mean, is her mother at fault, too, because she gave birth to her? It is the responsibility of the newspaper, in this case, not to hang somebody out to dry." (19)
In August 1988, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did not know its expose on King County Superior Court Judge Gary M. Little would lead to his suicide. The published story, which detailed allegations that Little had sexually abused delinquent boys who had appeared before him in court, was backed up by sworn statements from the grown-up victims. The day the story ran Little went to the country courthouse and killed himself with a .38-caliber handgun. Little had never been charged with any crime in association with the abuse allegations.
Little apparently had revealed his suicidal feelings to his lawyer and longtime friend the night before the story was published. But not to the newspaper.
"But even if he had (threatened suicide)," says Dick Clever (who worked as the chief editor on the story), "I would have thought long and hard for about five minutes and published it anyway." (21)
Clever, who still works for the Post-Intelligencer, remembers that, over a six-week period, he and reporter Duff Wilson, (who now reports for the Seattle Times ) had repeatedly tried to get Little to go on record and respond to the allegations detailed in the story. They were given the "quick brush," according to Clever.
"We made one last attempt the day before publication. He wanted to know if we planned to publish the next day. We told him that was our plan and he said he would have to take appropriate action. I just assumed we'd be named in a lawsuit," (22) Clever says.
Had they known he was suicidal, say both newsmen, precautions would have been taken to protect Little from himself.
"My first impulse would have been to jawbone him a little ... ask him why he wanted to end his life over this--why not just deal with it. I'd see where that would lead. If he cut me short, I'd have called one of his friends; notified authorities." (23)
On the night before publication, Clever and Wilson, after "last minute tweaking" of the story, retired to The Saloon--the watering hole for local reporters--to wait for the edition to hit the streets.
"I think we ordered a martini each and we hadn't even chewed the olive when the phone rang. It was the city desk (alerting them to Little's suicide.) We just looked at each other. We were both stricken. We felt awful. We immediately raced over to the courthouse where the media were already gathering in the lobby. The attention was focused on us, and for the most part, it was hostile." (24)
The story had to be published, both Clever and Wilson still say after years of reflection and memories of the knee-jerk anger the news of Little's suicide evoked in readers and even fellow journalists. Clever says he and Wilson were "bashed pretty bad" immediately following the publication of the story. By the third day, however, the public tide had turned in favor of the newspaper.
Clever and Wilson had faced an earlier ethical dilemma halfway through the research of the story when word leaked out through a courthouse source that Little would not seek a third term. One of their reasons for publishing the story in the first place was the knowledge that Little had considered stepping down from the bench and relocating to California.
"We had an interim discussion about whether or not we still had a public interest in publishing (after learning that Little would step down.) We went over the whole question of where is the line between private behavior and public accountability. We were trying to be careful," (25) Clever recalled.
"The problem was that the story was bigger than Gary Little," (26) says Wilson; the investigation was as much a critique of the Washington Judicial Conduct Commission--a legislative body that investigates charges of ethical violations of judge--as an expose on Little. Wilson said the governing body had "white-washed" past allegations that Little was a child molester. A large part of the story, he said, was bringing the commission to task.
Before the story was published, according to Clever, his newspaper learned that Little had no intentions of retiring in California but was, in fact, negotiating for a job with a private arbitration service.
Hodges thinks the Post-Intelligencer would be right in publishing the story even if Little had publicly threatened suicide as long as "reasonable steps were taken to protect him."
"A judge has a very powerful and prominent place in the community," Hodges says. "That needs to be taken into account in discussing the public's right." (27)
Wilkins also agrees that the Post-Intelligencer - death threat or not - made the right decision in publishing the story. And she goes one more step.
To blame a newspaper for a suicide illustrates a "reductionist's" misunderstanding of the problem.
"Suicide is a very personal decision, a very complicated decision. People who commit suicide are troubled people to begin with. Not that we (the media) may not be a component, along with family members, chemical, a number of possibilities. But it is hardly ever unicausal." (28)
And yet, when a suicide occurs as the result of a news story - even if the reporter and newspaper believe the right decision was made - the feelings of guilt and responsibility persist.
"It takes its toll," (30) says Duff Wilson. When he first learned that Judge Little had killed himself following the Post-Intelligencer story, "I felt like someone in my family had died. I was numb for a long time. It was awful."
To help come to terms with his role in the tragedy, Wilson says he contacted other reporters - and even a police officer - who had gone through the same experience. In particular, he remembers the conversation with the officer who brushed off a suicide threat from an inmate who was found hanging in his cell the next morning.
"I'm not prepared to say that this is just part of the profession. But time does go on. The numbness wears off. I'm grateful for the support I received in the newsroom in the aftermath - and from the public. I must have gotten 100 calls from readers sympathizing with me. (31)
"That kind of support helped enormously in getting me through."