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The Elder Abuse Beat

Journalists Speak Out Interview with members of the Journalists Exchange
(This interview was conducted with the help of Paul Kleyman, editor of the American Society on Aging's Aging Today, and coordinator of the Journalists Exchange on Aging, a network of 600 professional journalists who cover aging issues)

It was the British press that first exposed the shocking new phenomenon it tagged as "Granny Bashing" back in the late 1970s. Since then, media coverage of elder abuse has been sporadic and uneven. At its best, it has enhanced society's understanding of a complex problem, helped communities rally support for needed policy reform, guided victims to services, and even helped law enforcement track down abusers. At its worst, it has led to confusion and bred distrust between public agencies and those they are charged to serve.

Covering elder abuse is rife with difficulties. Victims, often impaired and terrified of retaliation, are usually unwilling to go public to tell their own stories. Service providers often distrust reporters' motives or fear that they will be portrayed unfairly. While reporters understand agencies' commitment to protect clients' confidentiality, some are frustrated by seemingly equivocal and unevenly applied policies.

nexus: While dramatic stories, like poisoning older people for their Social Security checks, will always make the news, what can social service agencies do to stimulate coverage of less sensational yet more pervasive situations.

Warren Wolfe, Senior Reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune: It's not the agencies' job to generate news articles. It is up to informed and responsible journalists to help people understand the world in which they live. Good stories are stories about people. And stories about abuse are good stories because they tell us something about the dark side of people. These kinds of stories often describe something we'd rather not believe about ourselves, but also are compelling because we are attracted to tales of our dark side (witness the repellent-attractive interest in Monica Lewinsky, horrible accidents, gruesome murders, etc.) A good story about an individual (or the person's family) combating elder abuse is compelling and often material for Page One. A story that gets inside an abuse case, that chronicles the emotional havoc, is sure to touch readers in profound ways. They also are the kind of stories, when extremely well told, that win contests for reporters.

Betty Booker, Reporter and Colum-nist for the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch's Prime Living Section: What it takes to get the less sensational abuses reported is for agency people to get to know reporters who cover the issue, and then pick up the phone and sound off. I have a couple of wonderful professionals with low thresholds of outrage who periodically call me when they detect a trend that needs to see the light of day - and many thanks to every one of them!

nexus: A common frustration voiced by the media is finding victims who are willing to talk about their abuse. How important is it to have actual victims tell their own stories and what have your experiences been in finding individuals who were willing to talk?

Warren Wolfe: Government agencies generally will not help me find abused people to talk with, regarding that as a violation of privacy. I understand their dilemma although some bureaucrats, with whom I have relationships of trust, are willing to ask people if they wish to talk with me.

Betty Booker: I consider myself lucky when I get a detailed oral case history without names. Hospital social workers see a lot of cases and some will contact clients and ask their permission to give me their names. Many say yes. Even so, many of the clients still don't want their names and pictures in the paper. Few people of any age like to say how they have been victimized, much less see it in print. Kudos to those who refuse to see themselves as victims and are willing to talk. We seem to have better luck with people when they're in a safe place and free from retribution.

nexus: Is there room for compromise here - ways to tell a compelling story without using names and faces?

Kay Harvey, Reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press: Humanizing the issue is always a good journalist's goal and that truly is the bugaboo. I suppose it might be possible to do a story using fictitious names and photos of people that do not give away their identity but show a setting that at least puts a visual element on it.

Betty Booker: We've reached some creative solutions to these problems - namely, stories without names or localities and photo and artist illustrations using volunteer elder "models."

Beth Witrogen McLeod, freelance writer, author of the forthcoming book Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss and Renewal (New York City: John Wiley & Sons), and consultant/columnist for Third Age Media: Many organizations are willing to use silhouettes for photos, and if management agrees, pseudonyms. Newspapers are the least likely to use pseudonyms, but it's advisable to talk to as many editors/reporters who are working with any one particular story as possible to see what compromises can be made.

Michael Vitez, Aging Reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and winner of a 1997 Pulitzer Prize: I won't use false names and other gimmicks. Real stories are powerful. I think you have to trust the reporter and the media. You can tell who the sensitive, honest, and good reporters are. Trust them.

nexus: What are some of the other challenges you've encountered in covering the issue?

Kay Harvey: Reining in elder abuse in a way that lends itself to storytelling. The more I learn about it, the more I realize how broad it is - from abuse and neglect by paid caregivers in institutions or homes, to emotional and physical abuse in marital relationships, to grown children who abuse their parents verbally, physically and financially. So we are hardly dealing with one story here, but a whole bunch of them that we first need to define. People in elder abuse programs need to help journalists understand how to measure the problem and how it's growing, changing, or manifesting itself. This is key to cutting through to see the smaller, more do-able stories behind the huge homogenous label.

nexus: There are many sides to abuse cases, and clearly one reservation that agencies have in working with the media is the fear that they or their colleagues will be portrayed unfairly. One of our Affiliates cites an incident in which a newspaper published an article depicting their community's public guardianship program as a "big brother" agency. The reporter took the side of a women who had been caring for - but actually exploiting - a man who was then placed under public guardianship. The reporter never did more than cursory interviews with staff and never interviewed disinterested third-party experts. Those familiar with the case felt that the reporter was conned by the woman's tale of an abusive and unchecked public guardian. We know that bad reporting - and poor case work - does happen, yet, this kind of situation can demoralize otherwise respected and effective staff workers and lead to distrust of reporters' motives when they call about doing a story. How do agencies know when a writer is merely looking for a hot story that will get on page 1?

Betty Booker: Social workers are trained to sport con artists, which, in very rare cases, include headline-hunters who aren't after the whole story. Tell your social workers to trust their gut feelings about the reporter! That's best discerned in face-to-face interviews until they know the reporter and his/her methods, ethics, and depth of understanding. Experienced reporters will want to know all sides of the issue; people with axes to grind will ask one-sided, uninformed, and prejudiced questions. The person being interviewed ideally needs to learn how to be interviewed through role-play BEFORE facing an unknown reporter.

Jane Haas, Staff Writer for the Orange County Register: Agency personnel are not charged with the task of discerning how balanced a reporter is going to be. That, in effect, turns them into gatekeepers for what may be public information. Every writer is hoping to find a "big" story. The best way to make sure that the story is accurate is to answer questions fairly and accurately. A good reporter always interviews both sides.

Perceptions of bias or unfairness work both ways. As an example, I had difficulty with a local agency director who was less than forthcoming with information that should be public. I worked for months to win this woman's trust. I suggest that case workers be trusting at the beginning to make everyone's job easier.

Warren Wolfe: It's shoddy work to merely take one person's side in a story without checking other accounts. A reporter must do that whenever possible, and especially in cases where an individual or agency is held up to the public for alleged wrong-doing. Often, however, that's difficult to do. It's possible that the guardian, for legal or other reasons, declined to comment and was left appearing to duck comment - and appearing guilty. If an agency refuses to comment about criticism (possibly because the case involves actual or potential litigation), the reporter must (a) make it clear to the agency what the story will say if it doesn't comment - I would give the agency a copy of the story or the significant portion of the story and offer it a day to respond - and (b) make fully clear to readers how the agency responds, or why it chose not to respond if it declines.

There are times where an agency screws up and SHOULD be skewered - where proper oversight or diligence has not occurred. My position is that in cases like that, the agency and its reputation are better off making as clean a breast of it as possible. Your chances of telling your side completely and fairly are best when you are able to talk to a journalist you respect, and who respects you. Here again, having established trust with a good reporter can help immensely.

nexus: We keep hearing that the media considers stories like elder abuse real "downers." What can we do to get important but dour stories in front of the community?

Warren Wolfe: The up side of downers is that there are some success stories. Those stories are critically important because (a) they encourage abused people in the community to have hope of a better life, (b) they help those people come forward to seek help, (c) they help others in the community see an avenue for addressing problems of friends or relatives about whom they are worried, (d) they help people develop trust in government/community programs as people-helping and problem-solving, and (e) they help people see particular agencies as addressing and helping with a serious community problem. You may need to help some reporters or editors see these truths, particularly young or inexperienced (or naive) ones. All of journalism is predicated most basically around providing a community service, and this is an area where it can perform this function - and get good stories in the bargain.

Betty Booker: I don't think there's any way to make elder abuse cases sexy to editors until they or their relatives are victimized. But you can keep pounding away.

nexus: Any advice on who we should be going to - the type of reporter and media that are most likely to be receptive to the issue?

Warren Wolfe: This is my bias, but your best bet probably is a newspaper reporter (or perhaps a reporter on a good seniors magazine in the community). Another possibility is a public radio station reporter if there is one in your community. Possibly even a good reporter on a college newspaper. My experience with television reporters is that they usually are generalists, with no background in aging issues (and often a stereotypically negative view of aging in general). In addition, television news segments are, at best, extremely brief and often so shallow as to be misleading.

nexus: What about approaching editorial boards and publishers - can this spur interest in coverage?

Betty Booker: Actually, I don't think this approach is especially useful except in small communities, but you might try to educate the editorial writers. If they're interested, the idea might filter down to the newsroom. More than likely, they'll listen politely and send you and/or your info to the newsroom.

Warren Wolfe: An exception may be a specific editorial writer who is interested in these kinds of social issues who may be willing to produce editorials or op-ed page pieces that examine the issue or agencies that deal with it. Without a good news peg, your effort likely will go ignored. However, take advantage of whatever entre you might have to the newspaper (or television, if you think it worthwhile). If you know the music critic personally, call her and ask advice for how to make contact with the right person, and ask that person's help in opening the door.

nexus: Another frustration agencies have is with seemingly simplistic coverage. For example, much of the recent coverage about abuse in nursing homes seems to focus on abuse by employees or administrators. Nursing homes are big business yet the story of corporate profits being taken at the expense of elders is seldom covered. What can be done to broaden the coverage of elder abuse to show the full picture rather than exploit easy targets who can be chased by TV crews for on-camera confrontations?

Betty Booker: The sad fact of journalism today is that these important stories take enormous amounts of time to research, and with downsizing, time is jammed full. Again, if you want the story covered, and it should be both in column and news writing, recognize the time crunch and supply information - and documents, if you've got them available.

Jane Haas: I have always pointed out that nursing homes are for-profit and businesses. Typically, when we find cases of elder abuse and call the head of the state's trade association of nursing homes, we get the same old, tired excuses "our industry is over-regulated and provides services for little profit, yadayada."

Warren Wolfe: Writing about abuse - either in a specific case or taking a larger, systemic view - is complex. Writing about abuse and corporate profits involves two distinct sets of reporting expertise that rarely come together in a single reporter. Business reporters rarely have expertise in social issues, and social-issue reporters rarely know a profit and loss statement from a debenture (and probably could not define either). I am suspicious of such stories anyway, because it's very easy to take unprincipled potshots at both business (nursing home owners) and at protectors of the vulnerable (government bureaucrats). Those kinds of alleged abuse situations rarely are black and white, but it's easy to offer shallow attacks and leap to illogical conclusions. Covering abuse is complex, hard work. It requires a strong interest on the part of the reporter in getting to the bottom of things, in writing compelling but fair accounts, of examining the systemic and public policy implications, and, occasionally, of finding the bad guy.

nexus: Everyone seems to agree on the importance of trust-building between service providers and reporters. Any suggestions for building trust?

Betty Booker: The source and the reporter need to be clear about what is on the record (everything the source says can be used and attributed to him or her), for background only (information is provided for the purpose of educating the reporter but no attribution or information can be used at the time), off the record (no attribution or information may be used; this is a variation of backgrounders), and not for attribution (we can use the information but must verify it through other sources). An example of the last category was used with "Deep Throat," a source in Watergate, whose tips generally were verified elsewhere. This category (not for attribution) may be a good way to go once a trusted relationship has developed between a reporter and source. Even it has to be handled gingerly since courts may try to force a reporter to disclose a source, particularly when crimes and suits for damages are involved.

Warren Wolfe: I keep coming back to the same point: Find good reporters and cultivate them. Pass along story ideas, even ones that have nothing to do directly with you or your agency. Talk about the issues. Help them see the value to readers. And write a letter to the editor that helps readers see the value of excellent articles about elder abuse.

Beth Witrogen McLeod: Don't give up! These issues MATTER.

Michael Vitez: Be honest and open. Let the reporters do their job.

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