News next: a journalism teacher's diary

February 8, 2011

Whose story is it anyway?

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 5:13 pm
Tags: , , , ,

As far as Emily Whitmer is concerned, the journalist who devoted 8,000 painstakingly-researched words to re-examining the validity of shaken-baby syndrome is morally equivalent to the woman she believes abused her baby son and destroyed his brain.


In the lead article in the February 6 New York Times Magazine, Emily Bazelon, a lawyer and journalist who edits Slate’s legal column and its feminist blog, calls into question hundreds of child-abuse prosecutions for shaking infants, which is held to be responsible for brain damage, and often death, for some 200 babies each year.

Bazelon uses a familiar journalistic technique to entice readers into a long and technical discussion of medical jurisprudence: she begins with the story of a single child, his mother and the care-giver now serving a 10 ½ year sentence in a Virginia prison.

To the details of Trudy Rueda’s widely-publicized trial, she adds interviews at the home of Erin and Michael Whitmer and in the jail cell of Rueda, who ran the in-home day care center where 5-month-old Noah Whitmer collapsed.

The interviews produce what Bazelon calls “two irreconcilable versions” of what happened on the spring morning when everything changed forever for the Whitmer and Rueda families.

In a blistering post on her blog after The Times article appeared, Whitmer writes of Bazelon, “There was something about her eyes, warm and dark – not unlike Trudy’s – that made me feel she would work diligently to present the truth.”

She is incensed when she learns that Bazelon interviewed Rueda.

We found out quite on accident and only a week or so ago that Trudy was in this story. Words can hardly convey our anger. Didn’t we have a right to know that our life and our case, which was settled over five full days of testimony a year ago, were going to be rehashed in a he-said she-said with Bazelon and her deft editing skills at the helm?

And she feels betrayed.

When I welcomed Emily Bazelon into my home in early November, I trusted her . . . I shared with her all the heartache and exhaustive details of the last couple years of our life. . . . We agreed to do it despite knowing we would hate a great deal of it; after all, she wanted to address the Shaken Baby Syndrome debate. But, we thought, if we could have the chance for people to read our blog, to read our story, to know the truth as we know it, we might have a positive impact on one baby’s life. This, in retrospect, is the same naive bullshit I contrived when convincing myself two years ago that a woman who is little more than a stranger can take loving care of my child.

When Whitmer writes that hoped in Bazelon’s article people would “read our story” she makes a key mistake. Bazelon didn’t intend to tell the Whitmers’ story. She wanted to write a story that conveyed her doubts about sending people to prison based on what she sees as doubtful medical evidence, evidence that research increasingly calls into question.

Certainly that’s an important issue that justifies the length and prominence of Bazelon’s article, which also tells of two women who were imprisoned—one for 11 years—then released after appeals courts ordered new trials and medical experts changed their testimony, and in one case, changed sides. The article leaves readers wondering how many more innocent people are rotting in prison.

Whitmer writes that she agreed to be interviewed “despite knowing we would hate a great deal of it; after all, she wanted to address the Shaken Baby Syndrome debate.” Many journalists would have been less forthcoming than Bazelon evidently was.

Bazelon doesn’t reach a conclusion about what happened to little Noah Whitmer, though. Under the circumstances, knowing how much his family was suffering and how raw their wounds are, should she have refrained from using its story? Most journalists will say that a story must serve its readers, not its subjects. But at the very least, each reporter should remember the pain he may inflict before he presents someone else’s suffering to the public gaze.

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