Journalists Speak Out Interview
with members of the Journalists Exchange
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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."
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.
What are some of the other challenges you've encountered in covering
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
What about approaching editorial boards and publishers - can this
spur interest in coverage?
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.
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.
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?
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
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."
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.
Everyone seems to agree on the importance of trust-building between
service providers and reporters. Any suggestions for building
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.
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.
Witrogen McLeod: Don't give up! These issues MATTER.
Vitez: Be honest and open. Let the reporters do their job.
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