The ethics of reporting on baby Storm: did journalists make a mistake?

Earlier this week, Margaret Somerville, director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law and McGill University, wrote a story for The Mark questioning whether journalists made a mistake when they identified baby Storm — a Toronto child whose sex is known only to seven people and whose story has garnered media attention the world round. Below is a new introduction by the author on why she came to ask questions about the ethics involved, what journalists had to say about those questions — and whether she should even be asking them.On the following page, we reprint the story from the Mark.

Many journalists and commentators around the world immediately jumped on the Baby Storm story.  Apart from the OctoMum case the amount of coverage was probably unprecedented for a family issue based story. Like those writers, I penned a newspaper commentary article on the case. I focused on the ethics of Storm’s parents’ behavior in attempting to raise their three children “genderless”, in order not to program them into stereotypical gender roles. My article was published in the Ottawa Citizen (“‘Choice’ for Baby Storm isn’t so simple” The Ottawa Citizen, May 27, 2011, p. A13) and posted on The Mark (“’Storm’ in a Tea Cup Raises Larger Concerns” The Mark, May 30, 2011.) To be frank, it did not occur to me that I might be doing something unethical in publishing this article — and I’m an ethicist!

Subsequently, I was asked to appear on a panel discussing the Storm case on TV Ontario’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. During the show I explained that Kathy Witterick, Storm’s mother, after reading my Citizen article, had asked the comments page editor if she could reply and he agreed. Reading her article made me realize that the facts might not be as I, and it seems to me others who wrote on the case, had assumed, namely, that the parents had simply decided not to reveal Storm’s sex to other than the seven people, including the parents, who knew whether the baby was a boy or a girl.

In her article, Witterick revealed that Jazz, her 5 year old son, had suggested not disclosing the baby’s sex and I had a very strong impression from what she wrote that she might have been trying to deal with Jazz’s gender orientation in the approach she took to parenting all of her children. Paikin read the relevant passage to the panel.

It was only at this point, while participating in the panel, that I realized that publication of the initial story and my and others’ subsequent writing on it raised important ethical issues. So I asked the Toronto Star reporter, Jayme Poisson, who wrote the initial story and was also on the panel, whether she or anyone else at the Star had considered the ethics of publishing it.

As I explain in the article below, Paikin seemed to become upset with me for questioning the ethics of publishing the story. He said to me, “this is a program about the Baby Storm case, not one about journalistic ethics”. And his reaction is not unique. I’ve encountered an unusually high level of sensitivity in almost all of the media people with whom I’ve raised the issue of the ethics of publishing the Storm story and I’m not sure why. It seems to be based on more than the usual concern about maybe having breached ethics.

As a means of trying to work out the ethics that should have governed public discussion of the Storm case, I wrote the second article, which appears below. But I find myself in a Catch 22 situation: If it was a breach of ethics to put the Storm story into the public square (because of the breach of the children’s privacy), was I complicit in that breach of ethics in entering the public debate on the story, and, if so, am I further complicit in it in writing this article about journalistic ethics based on it? I know that at least one on-line editor whom I respect and  with whom I deal regularly had this concern, but said he “couldn’t quite put his finger on what the nature of the problem was”.

And might some other editors have intuited the same reservations? I sent the media ethics article, sequentially, to all my usual print publishers and to the Toronto Star, with which I’ve never published, and for the first time in many years none of them would accept it for publication. Of course, it could be just substandard, but I received replies such as, “Thanks Margo for thinking of us, but we’ll pass this time”, and, “This is good and I’m sure you’ll get it published, but we have a backlog of articles at the moment”. One of my regular online publishers, The Mark, immediately accepted it (The Ethics of Reporting on Baby Storm) but the editor rightly added, from an ethical perspective, that before posting “there are a few places where I would like to make the details about Baby Storm’s family a little more vague. For instance, I’d like to remove the name of the school where the father works — after all, the article does stress the importance of maintaining the family’s privacy.'” I also sent it to TV Ontario for their information.

I would welcome any feedback – especially from those with that essential-to-ethics, experiential knowledge – on what the ethics that should govern such publications should be.

Continue reading the second page of this entry for Margaret Somerville’s story “The Ethics of Reporting on Baby Storm”, which originally appeared on The Mark.

Below is Margaret Somerville’s story “The ethics of reporting on baby Storm”, which was originally published on The Mark

Last week, I participated in a five-person panel, representing a broad
range of relevant professional expertise, called “Bringing Up
(Genderless) Baby” on TVOntario’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The
panel addressed the case of Baby Storm, a child whose sex is known to
only seven people, including the baby’s parents. The parents say they
consider Storm’s sex to be “private” information and do not want the
child to be treated as a boy or a girl by others. Instead, they want
Storm – and their other two children – to be free of stereotypical
gender influences in choosing their own gender, in order to allow them
to be what they call “gender creative.” I’ve already engaged in the
debate on the acceptability of Storm’s parents’ approach in this regard,
and will not add to that; rather, I want to address the ethics of the
media in this scenario.

Jayme Poisson, the reporter from the Toronto Star, who wrote the initial
story, was a member of the panel. She explained that the case came to
the attention of the Star through a friend of her editor. The friend
told the editor that Storm’s father taught at an alternative school,
which the newspaper identified. Poisson was assigned to the story and
easily tracked down the father, David Stocker, as the school had only
four teachers. She contacted him and asked if he would agree to her
writing a story about his family. He said he would have “to take it
home” and discuss it with the rest of the family before he could give
her an answer. The next day, he agreed to her spending two days with the
family and bringing in a photographer.

The story appeared as front-page news with a photo of Storm. Storm’s
mother, Kathy Witterick, told Poisson she was “surprised to see the
picture on the front page” and had not anticipated all the public
attention and debate.

When I asked Poisson if she had thought about how Baby Storm might feel
about the story she wrote when 20 years old, she seemed surprised by the
question. The question is ethically relevant because of the doctrine of
anticipated consent. When a person cannot consent to an intervention
for themselves, it is only ethical to proceed if we can reasonably
anticipate they would consent if able to do so.

I also questioned Poisson about whether she or her editor or anyone else
at the Toronto Star had considered the ethics of the reporting. I
pointed out that I was not accusing her or them of being unethical, but
that I thought the ethics of researching this story (her presence as a
journalist in the children’s home for two days to observe the children
and report on them, and a photographer taking pictures) and writing and
publishing it merited exploration.

Poisson’s first response was that the parents had consented, and she
described them in very positive terms, saying they were “open and
honest” in their interactions with her. (Whether they gave an informed
consent, and whether that is ethically and legally required, is a
further question.) I agreed that was correct, but the children had not
consented – they are too young to do so validly. (Note, however, that
the parents believe their children are capable of making valid choices
and decisions, and Stocker’s consultation with his family about agreeing
to Poisson doing the story probably included them.)

Both ethically and legally, parents can consent on behalf of their
children, but only where any risks of an intervention to the children
are negligible – no more than the risks of everyday life – or the
intervention is in the “best interests” of the children, and its
benefits or potential benefits to the children clearly outweigh any
harms or risks to them.

Steve Paikin seemed to think that I was unfairly putting Poisson on the
spot and came to her defence. He interpreted one of my comments, in a
way I had not intended, as alleging the parents had agreed to the story
to gain their 15 minutes of fame. He rightly said that “there is no
evidence they are doing this because they want to be famous.”

Paikin gave an example of a CNN “live cover” story of rescuing a child
who had fallen down a well, as showing that media stories on children
are ethically acceptable. But this was a story of an accident, not an
intentional exposure of private family life, and I believe it is not in
the same ethical category.

He also rightly said that the Star story was “fair” and that it was
“unique,” which is “what makes it a story,” and that Poisson was invited
in by the parents and had a responsibly to put the issues out into the
public sphere. Moreover, he pointed out that she alone had not made the
decision to publish the story; her editor and the publisher of the
newspaper were also collaborators. In response, I pointed out that
fairness in reporting was ethically necessary, but not sufficient to
ensure ethics.

Uniqueness is indirectly relevant in that if it’s a unique story and
it’s in the public interest that it be reported, that helps to justify
ethically inflicting any risks and harms entailed in publishing it.
Interestingly, the story is not unique in its content – another panelist
pointed out there is a similar Swedish case, and Poisson explained that
this case was reported without names or photographs and the subjects
have not been identified, despite efforts by the media to do so. We can
only wonder whether ethical concerns led to that approach.

As to others also being involved in putting the story in the public
square, ethical (and legal) responsibility is like a cake, not a
football. One person does not divest himself or herself of it by
throwing it to another person; everyone can have a slice.

The bottom line is the ethics of publishing this story depends on
whether there is a public-interest benefit that justifies any risks or
harms to the children that doing so could entail. Those harms include
any sensationalism surrounding the family and future harms that might
ensue from the breach of privacy that has occurred. It’s paradoxical
that the parents emphasize the importance of privacy in relation to Baby
Storm’s sex in order not to inhibit the child’s “gender choices,” but
they have been complicit in this enormous breach of family privacy. .

For an intervention that will inflict some risks and harms to be
ethically justified, the least invasive, least restrictive approach that
is reasonably possible must be adopted. Perhaps the media need to take a
lead from the law and the courts, which, in cases involving sensitive
private information relating to children, operate from a basic
presumption, to which exceptions can be made in individual cases of
protecting the names of the children and their families.

Margaret Somerville is the director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.