Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Save Diane Sawyer's Job

From Po:

Last Friday, Primetime Live aired videotape of a stepfamily in Lake Placid, New York. In one segment, the father, Joe Nelson, is seen hitting his teenaged daughter Kyle as the stepmother Lynn egged him on. This moment was pulled from hundreds of hours of footage recorded by minicameras set up in the family's home by Primetime in 2002 and 2003. In addition to the beating, the segment made it clear that heated verbal arguments were commonplace in the Nelson home. In another moment, the parents threaten to hit her.

Most viewers felt they were witness to physical and emotional abuse. And they immediately wondered why Diane Sawyer and her producers did not report the Nelson family to the police or to Child Protective Services. ABC's team had been monitoring the videotape. Producers were clearly in the house at times, asking questions of the parents in an interview format.

This has caused a firestorm for Diane Sawyer. Over at ABCNews.com, there have been 9,000 messages posted - most calling for Diane Sawyer to resign. The District Attorney for Franklin County has opened an investigation after receiving over 800 phone calls from viewers. Diane Sawyer has responded by devoting segments of Good Morning America to the fallout. On two consecutive mornings she has tried to explain why her team did not intervene - she has even brought Kyle Nelson on to the set to support her. Diane Sawyer insists that this family was already in counseling (though we never met the counselors). She also insists that this physical violence was an isolated incident - no others exist on the videotapes. (But in the show Friday night, Joe and Lynn admitted they had hit his daughter other times to discipline her). Diane Sawyer and her producers did not feel that the videotapes showed an unsafe environment. "It was bad parenting, but not unsafe for these children." Lastly, she falls back on the defense that ABC News created this segment in order to help stepfamilies. How was it helpful? It was supposedly "helpful" to let everyone know how bad it can get in some stepfamilies.

On the ABC message boards, viewers are only getting hotter. Not only are people upset that Diane Sawyer and her producers did not intervene to protect the teen daughter and her three young siblings, but they're furious that Primetime used this footage in a sensational way to get ratings. Slow-motion footage of the beating was repeatedly teased in previews to attract a larger audience. It was worse than tasteless - it was stomach-turning. And not at all informative. Far from being a portrait of a typical stepfamily-in-trouble, it was candid video of two abusive parents and nothing else.

I want to chime in with my two cents. As a journalist, I have been in situations where I felt I must intervene.

Journalists have this creed that they are not supposed to alter the outcome of a story. But that does not mean they can stand on the sidelines if they see a person in danger. If they feel they cannot broadcast a story because they altered its outcome, then throw the videotape in the file bin - but always help the person in trouble.

I interviewed families every week during the 3-year process of writing Why Do I Love These People? Twice I felt it necessary to affect the outcome. If that meant I crossed the line and could no longer report the story, then so be it. I always called a lawyer - the Random House lawyer - to discuss the ethics and my responsibilities.

In one instance, I had been interviewing a young couple and their toddler for about a year. They were skeptical whether their marriage could work. One day, the husband telephoned me in a panic. His wife had taken their son and gone to France on vacation for a week. Now it was clear to the husband that his wife was not coming back - the "vacation" had been a ruse. She had fled with their son, probably to her family's home in France. I knew that this was a violation of international law under the Geneva Convention, and that the mother could be prosecuted and forever lose custody of her child. The French government would be bound by treaties to pursue her and rescue the child. So I telephoned her parent's home, and sure enough, she was there. She was aware the French government might have to pursue her, so she was considering fleeing to Switzerland with her son under a false identity. Forever living on the run. Within one day, the father had hired an attorney who was ready to act aggressively.

Deciding to help was not a difficult decision. The agony was in realizing I would never be able to report their story as a result. My job was to get these two into the hands of professionals who could resolve their divorce and custody amicably. I insisted they find a mediator in Paris and meet at her office to strike a deal, quickly. The anger and hostility and distrust in these situations is explosive, and keeping both parties in a forgiving and positive state of mind took some stroking. To top it off, the mother was not a US Citizen, and after the divorce and she would not have the right to work in the U.S. - so an ocean would divide her and her son. The mediator was excellent. Within a week, they had a temporary deal. Within two weeks, the son was back in the United States. Within a month, they had agreed to divorce terms and custody - with some provisions. I am happy to say that their arrangement is working fairly well. The mother is back in the United States and sees her son frequently and has an employer that is sponsoring her visa.

Another time, I was visiting a single mother and her child. She was sharing custody with her ex. She was living with her boyfriend in a low-rent apartment complex. I met him and his brother briefly, before they went to their jobs at a fast-food restaurant. The mother told me that her boyfriend got drunk once a week and his brother was rowdy. There were no signs of imminent danger, but I did judge that this mother would be better off living on her own. She was mothering her boyfriend, and she had enough to deal with between her son and herself. She didn't need her boyfriend's problems. She wanted to move out on her own, but she did not have the $800 deposit on a new apartment. I decided that day to cross the line, slightly, and speak up: it was important she move out. Maybe not be in a relationship right now. I quizzed her at length whether she could borrow the $800 from someone. I agonized whether to give her the $800 myself. She called two days later to say she had found an apartment manager who was willing to let her move in without a deposit. She was going to move out in two weeks.

While some journalists might think I had already done too far, I worried I had not done enough. I recognized that my speaking up might already mean I would not report this story. I wasn't sure yet. Nor was the Random House lawyer.

Two weeks later, the mother had not moved out. Her boyfriend had convinced her they could save money sticking together; he had agreed that his brother would not come around. (For what it's worth, my own daughter was born at this very time, so I was occupied and did not have much time that month for my research families). Nevertheless, I did advise her that I disagreed with her choice.

A month later, she told me that her boyfriend had come home drunk one night and wanted sex. She always refused to have sex when he had been drinking. So on this occasion, he forced her to have sex. She understood that he had raped her, and she used that word. She was in tears. She loved her boyfriend but this was a crime. He had moved out, temporarily, to his brother's. I absolutely insisted she file a police report, or I would call the police myself. She did file the report immediately. Her boyfriend received counseling and began AA. About six weeks later, she let him move back in. I told her that my opinion did not matter as much as the opinion of the police and her boyfriend's counselor. She loved him and he has not had a drink since.

So let's take it back to Diane Sawyer. I intervened, and she did not. So why do I think Diane Sawyer should be spared criticism on this point?

Because the Nelsons were in family counseling. Kyle Nelson, the teenage daughter, was in individual therapy as well. Kyle had once attempted suicide, and she was taking ADHD medication, so I am guessing that her therapist was a psychiatrist with a doctorate in medicine who can prescribe drugs. It was not like the family therapist or Kyle's doctor did not know Kyle was in jeopardy.

A journalist's responsibility is to get the subject to a professional: a lawyer, a mediator, the police, or a licensed counselor. That's the important standard. Which type of professional they use to defuse the danger is ultimately the choice of the subject.

But what about the tape of the beating? Had I been in Diane Sawyer's shoes, I probably would have called the family's counselor and Kyle's doctor and told them I had a videotape of the incident. I would have wanted to make sure that the incident was discussed in their therapy sessions. The counselor and psychiatrist were the experts trained to decide whether further intervention was necessary.

Diane Sawyer insists that her ABC team showed the tapes to outside experts and asked their advice. Those experts did not recommend more-severe intervention than ensuring this family was in counseling. Diane Sawyer is a very-experienced journalist and I think on this point she did her job.

That does not mean I think the Primetime episode was okay. It was gratuitous, sensational, and mischaracterized as a "stepfamily" story when it was really a story about domestic violence and emotional abuse. ABC deserves to be called out for this. But that sort of criticism is the stuff we do every day here in this blog. We want the story told accurately. But when a journalist sensationalizes a story, we don't demand they should lose their job.

Postscript: In the ten days since I wrote this, I have been in communication with Kyle Nelson's family and learned just how in the dark ABC kept them. Read what I learned here.


Blogger Po Bronson said...

Please note that the Franklin County district attorney has closed his case, saying that the statute of limitations prevents him from prosecuting Joe and Lynn Nelson. He criticized ABC, saying that if Primetime had given him the tape after the incident, he could have taken steps to benefit the family and protect the children. He did not say that he would have pursued prosecution as a means of protecting them.

Also, please note that Kyle Nelson has lived with her grandmother for the last couple years. ABC knew this, and so they did not feel Kyle was in further danger.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Bustopher Jones said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing your personal experience and knowledge.

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps I misunderstood the post. It seems the viewers are calling for Diane Sawyer to resign. Why aren't they calling for the producers to resign too? Unless Diane Sawyer was one of the producers?

In your case, I wonder if you were able to intervene in both situations because you were NOT on TV. Is it a little easier when you are researching and writing for print media than if you were doing a TV program live or scripted?

I never saw the show. I hope the kids are OK now. I hope the kids are now with their grandmother.

Did the ABC news people ever think about other possible consequences besides ratings?

8:30 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

I strongly disagree with Po about what Diane Sawyer and her producers should have done. This was going on (and recorded by the videocameras) and yet neither the family counselor nor Kyle's psychiatrist had intervened. That's when it's time for the journalists to intervene. The Nelsons were probably downplaying the degree of their hostility and conflict to their counselors. The only people who really knew what was going on were the ABC producers. That's why they should have gone to the police.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of the posters at ABC Primetime forum are extremely upset with the three therapists on the Primetime episode too, and their participation in the sensationalism of the child abuse video. Many feel the child was exploited as a result. One of the therapists, Dr James Bray, is currently running for the election of president for the American Psychological Association (APA):


10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a really interesting perspective on this matter.

I would make one differentiation between your actions when faced with a troubling circumstance and those of Diane Sawyer et al, however.

Whereas you recognized that you could no longer continue as both an "objective spectator" so to speak, and a participant in the drama itself, I fear that ABC wanted to have its cake and eat it too.

Kudos to them for ensuring that the circumstances that allowed for the incident changed, but by using the footage to increase ratings, they open themselves up to this criticism.

Better that they had shown the household situation leading up to the attack, then make it clear that an incident took place, and that Kyle left, etc. as well as the counseling that was provided to all parties. When they decided to show the footage as they did, they lost any credibility in stating their true goals.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

I agree ABC wanted to eat its cake. They absolutely wanted to use this footage and wanted to make money off it. The way they used the footage to tease the show repeatedly shows exactly how valuable they knew the footage was. And that interest - ratings, profit - definitely was a factor in them not-intervening.

Primetime is in the business of finding sensational stories. I bump into sensational stories, but I'm usually looking for a more representative story with actual insight and good news in it.

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Christina said...

I agree with some of the comments made by Po. The only disagreement I have is concerning what Diane Sawyer and ABC's producers should have done. As a psychology student (I'm graduating next Spring), I know that we are ethically obligated to inform the authorities if any child abuse becomes apparent in ANY research studies that are being conducted or performed. Obviously, this was not a experimental research study, or any other type of study, but there was a definite amount of observation going on (the camera and the video tapes being made). This leads me to believe that ABC was ethically obligated to inform the authorities of the abuse. Not only was there physical abuse, but also emotion and or psychological, which is often ignored by the media. Words hurt too, and can often be internalized by the victium, thus creating deterimental effects in the child's development (self-esteem and self-image). Even if ABS was not professionally ethically obligated to report the maltreatment, ABC was still personally obligated to help and not stand by the sidelines. This makes me wonder what values and ethics these individuals have. Without reporting the maltreatment to authorities, the father and stepmother has somewhat gotten away with seriously harming a child. I know that enough media coverage has probably made this family ostracized , but I would have liked to see them criminally charged. Too much abuse in this country goes unreported.

5:01 PM  
Blogger yankhadenuf said...

There is a petition circulating asking ABC/Disney to do the right thing and fund a college scholarship for Kyle:


9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Also, please note that Kyle Nelson has lived with her grandmother for the last couple years. ABC knew this, and so they did not feel Kyle was in further danger."

This is only partly true. at the time ABC reviewed the tape and saw the crime being comitted my Niece was not living with my parrents.

ABC did not turn this tape over to anyone they didnt eaven knotify my family. We had no clue to the scale of the abuse untill the show aired.

The only reason that they didnt turn the tape over is that they would have lost the story. My niece was used for ratings and they did not care about what happened to her at all.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

To the Aunt of Kyle who just posted:

Thank you for giving us some concrete information. It does change my opinion considerably. I would love to get more information on how ABC didn't contact the families or show the tapes to experts (as they asserted they did - but maybe they did only on the verge of airing the show?). Are you her mother's sister? Please write me if you can, at pobronson@pobronson.com.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous determine48 said...

Every one was manipulated by ABC. The therapists that Sawyer said she checked with cannot shoulder the responsibility that should be ABC's. Hundreds of hours of tape, but we only see a few minutes. That has everything to do with editing. What was edited before the therapists saw the tape? And when did they see it? All the errors were ABC's. All of them. They wanted ratings at the expense of a child.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous WIND said...

Diane Sawyer and the producers of ABC News stooped to EXPLOITING a family for ratings and appears by the Network's silence that unreported child abuse is not beneath them in the quest for ratings. But they're only adhering to Disney company policy -- doing what they can to generate profits from other people's misery.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous WIND said...


1:02 PM  

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