Pushing the boundaries in small communities

Question: I’m covering a story that involves some degree of finesse. It includes an investigation by Ontario’s Child Advocate into the suicide of a teenager, who was in care.This was a young man from a remote fly-in reserve, who was supposed to be taken in by the local CAS, the school board, a billet family and a group home. Instead, he wound up on a train track intoxicated, where he made a terrible decision. The story is to write about how the system failed him with tragic results. However, the challenge is that I’m not supposed to identify him, since he was in care. This is a small community, without many “sudden deaths” of teenagers, so specific details may serve to identify the case. I’m guessing that speaking in generalities about protocols and systems may help tackle the broader issue. Any suggestions for how far I can push the boundaries for describing the issue without identifying the individual? My editors and I are also consulting with our legal counsel on this story.

Answer by Robert Washburn

Robert WashburnWhen you cover a small community, these are the toughest calls. In fact, it will be nearly impossible to say anything remotely boundary-pushing that will not identify him. Small communities like the one you describe are so tightly knit that people will know despite your best efforts. Even if you choose to do a process story, the inference still exists. But please, do not let that stop you.

May I suggest this is not a bad thing, but a good one. For the community to deal with the problem directly, it won’t do anyone any good to avoid a troubling issue. You most certainly have a legal responsibility — and it sounds like you are addressing this. However, you may wish to follow your instincts and pursue the protocols and systems story.

You may also wish to approach this from a public journalism agenda.

This would mean engaging the community directly by allowing them to participate in the search to find solutions to the problems you identify. Getting the community to speak out on these issues will take away some of the sting associated with this tragic event. If the community speaks in its own voice and those ideas and comments are printed, then it may be the first steps toward resolving broader issues.

I know small papers lack staff and resources to undertake a series, but you could consider a longer term look at not only this case, but related issues such as the role of social services, the school board and the group home system.

Then, once you have written about each aspect, invite the community to comment. Publish their comments directly, without them being integrated into a story. If needed, solicit comments through interviews or invitations to write. Print the quotes directly. Reach out to those who do not normally speak to issues (reducing the number of quoted “officials,”) just to see what is said. It may surprise you. What you want to do is facilitate a dialogue within the community you serve that is unmediated by reporters or the newspaper. By hearing other voices, the results may not feel harsh or imposed by an outsider (the newspaper).

As much as this ethical problem you face speaks to the legalities, it also speaks to community standards. If done gently and with compassion, involving your community rather than merely reporting on it, you may be able to achieve some incredible results.

Robert Washburn is a J-Source contributing editor and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont.