Print Media Coverage of Child Fatalities when a Human Services Agency is Involved

When a child dies and we learn that a human services department or agency was involved, how well does the print media cover the story? How accurate and thorough is it? Does the story convey sufficient comprehensiveness and perspective to give the reader a solid understanding of the events? Is there any discernible information bias, either intentional or unintentional? Does the writer seem to have an agenda?

In short – is it fair? And, for our purposes, to what extent might a news story have an unintended effect on a subsequent legal proceeding regarding that same child fatality? There is no scientifically valid, objective, approach to accurately answer these questions. Nonetheless, with a sincere effort at intellectual integrity, and given the space limitations, I attempt some meaningful observations. By no means should this be called a “study,” “research” or similar formal term; nor is this effort pro- or anti-department/agency.

In reviewing relevant articles, I looked at ones from 2014 to the present that had the terms “child died,” “department of human services,” and “custody” (and similar terms for each). I sifted through the results and read approximately sixty. In truth, I came away not with good answers but with tough questions:

  1. Do journalists and society have an implicit assumption that a child should never die if a human services agency was involved?
  2. When it comes to child fatalities do some journalists feel they have a ‘calling’ to expose perceived agency shortcomings, especially if the circumstances of the death are particularly disturbing?
  3. What evidence will be sufficient for a successful motion for a change of venue (and related motions)?

From a journalistic and social policy perspective, publicity of child fatalities poses a quandary. Such focus shines a bright light so that additional facts may be revealed and considered. It can also ensure that those overseeing the child welfare and justice systems will act honestly by subjecting their judgments to public scrutiny. Conversely, inaccurate reporting may lead to inadvertent negative perceptions and bias against family members, collateral professionals, and agency employees. Especially if there are criminal allegations, there is bound to be a clash of the First Amendment right of freedom of the press and the Fourteenth and Sixth Amendments right to a fair trial.

We expect journalists to bring clarity to complex issues, to present facts in a logical sequence in their proper context. All the while, we expect them to probe in a good faith way – not to create news, just report the facts. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) believes “that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers. The four principles of the Code are:

  1. “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information;
  2. Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect;
  3. The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public; and,
  4. Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.”

See the SJP Code of Ethics at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Reporting about child fatalities has built-in limitations. Some essential information may not be readily available. In addition, against a backdrop of confidentiality laws, only selected facts may be presented to reporters by the sources themselves, thereby compromising any hope of verification.

California attorney Evelyn Cox notes that “determining whether a child welfare agency is at fault or not when there is a child fatality is not the work of the media, it is the work of the court. It is a properly informed public that makes our democracy work. Of course we don’t want to see child care workers spend time away from protecting children because they are involved in a “media circus” but it seems to me that child welfare agencies have legal counsel and should be able to handle the scrutiny. If there is a bias on behalf of a specific reporter or the media in general, it will reveal itself soon enough.”

Maryland attorney Harvey Schweitzer has another viewpoint: “Having represented social workers and child serving agencies for many years I am dismayed at how readily the media concludes that it is the agency and the worker who must be to blame when a child in care dies. There have been times when, because I was familiar with the facts of a particular tragic situation I was interviewed by a journalist whose approach left little doubt in my mind that the agency and the worker were the targets of what passes for ‘investigative reporting.’ It is sad that too frequently reporters are unwilling to sift through complex factual circumstances to uncover the chain of events that led to a child’s death, but instead engage in ‘gotcha’ reporting.”

Attorneys are acutely aware of the impact pretrial publicity can have on juries. Without a fair press we risk inadvertently prejudicing the justice system later on. The guilty may go free, and the innocent may suffer undeserving penalties or miss their opportunity for compensation. Undoubtedly, more thought and rigorous research needs to done.

This article originally appeared in Policy & Practice, December 2015.


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