Interview Segments on Topic: Taste and Sensitivity
Rick Rodriguez is the former executive editor and senior vice president of The Sacramento Bee, who joined the Cronkite School at Arizona State University as the Carnegie professor, Southwest Borderlands Initiative. His staff, while at The Bee, won many of the country’s most prestigious journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, the George Polk award for investigative reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, National Headliner’s award, Sigma Delta Chi, Overseas Press Club, American Society of Newspaper Editors diversity writing award, and many others. He was the first Latino to serve as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is a graduate of Stanford University.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things we talk about a lot in the ethics classes are the importance of newsroom conversations. Don’t just have one guy writing a cutline or something like that and nobody else looks at it and then it blows up in your face. So I was wondering if you could think of instances where those conversations did take place that averted those kinds of public relations fiascos or situations where if such a conversation had taken place perhaps it would.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I can talk about some situations where the conversations did take place and I think I made the wrong decision but sure, there have been many conversations that took place that I think have averted public relations disasters. I can think of one off the top of my head. We did a story looking at a cheerleading team in a low income area of Sacramento and this cheerleading team had a series of tragedies. One young girl died of Lupus, another one was struck by some other disease and we followed them over a period of months and how they were coping with the tragedy. Very nice story but over a period of months we took photographs of everything and then wrote a multipart series. One of the stories was about the Hmong girl who had died of Lupus. It was a traditional family who wouldn’t allow you to go to doctors, so she was treated by shaman and ended up dying, we ended up going to the funeral and we took…the family was totally with us, even during their grief they allowed us unbelievable access and we took these beautiful pictures including one that was quite tender of the girl lying in her casket, she looked like she was asleep. Dressed up in traditional Hmong and they had the mother touching her and all of the hands touching her and the facial expression—just wonderful moment captured. First the question we had, whether or not we print the pictures of a dead child. And it was a wonderful photograph, they wanted to print it. But then I raised a question is, this is six months, we’re printing it like four months…six months, I can’t remember, after the kid has died. I said, the family was okay with it then, but what about now. What happens if we bring up these memories four months later? They said, oh no the family is cool, they’re cool. And so I listened to everybody, the consensus was to print it. And so I said you know, I don’t think we should do that without checking with the family. They said well that’s self-censorship and giving the family control and there was a big debate internally about that. I said no, it’s human courtesy and I said part of what we do, yeah we can be cold, we can be hard, yeah we have a right to publish, but do we publish when your gut instincts say that they deserve the courtesy since they let us into this very private moment? Do they deserve the courtesy to find out what the reaction was? So the reporter and the photographer went out, showed the picture to the mother and said we’re planning on printing it and the mother kind of went off the deep end and she went into hysterics. Kind of ended up I think, a couple of nights in the mental ward, etc. and you know, so the reporter and photographer—I didn’t hear this very much as an editor—came back and said, you were right. You know, even though we had that conversation, but you were right, because you know…and I think you do that in stories if folks who aren’t use to dealing with the media…I think you have a responsibility to take the extra step, the ethical responsibility to take the extra step and make sure that they understand the impact of what you’re going to do. Not only on them but that picture or that story that you’re going to write about them is going to be transmitted to a million people and it maybe picked up by other media and it’s going to live on, on the Internet, those images will live on forever. And so, I don’t think we think often enough about that, but I think that that’s a community responsibility. I think journalists in saying we have a right to publish, we’ll publish people’s salaries in public because we can. And we ask the question; do we need to publish that secretary’s salary? Do we need to publish the janitor’s salary? The high level people, you know that are used to dealing with the public, I think it’s fine. They’re big boys and girls and they should know it’s coming and they’re in public service. But we have to ask those questions and I fear and I know that too often people don’t ask them.