Journalism can be a brutal business, and sometimes I don’t have the stomach for it. It’s been said that newspaper or magazine writing is inherently exploitive because you often find yourself encouraging people to tell you something that they — had they stepped back and reflected on it — might realize is not in their best interest. “But that’s OK,” journalists say, “because it’s all for the public good.”
No wonder people think we’re arrogant.
But, as a said, sometimes that process makes me uneasy. For example, many years ago, when I was a reporter in Delaware, I wrote a series about what drug treatment was like by actually staying in an in-patient treatment center myself for three or four days and reporting on the stories there. It was miserably confining, by the way, and there was no coffee, but that’s not the point.
I decided to concentrate on one young cocaine addict and chart his progress through the four stories. He was vulnerable and needy and more than willing to tell me his story, but he balked at having his name and photo used. My series turned out well, I thought, but it could have been much better had I pressed him just a little more and convinced him to let me use his name and photo and I bet he would have complied. Yet I worried that identifying him would make his recovery harder, indeed, might even play a part in sabotaging it. So I didn’t do it. And, in the end, I wasn’t as exploitive as I could be; but then, my story didn’t have the impact it might have had, either.
The Los Angeles Times had no such compunction this week in a prominent story that was easily the most talked about article among education reporters this summer. Titled “Who’s Teaching L.A.’s Kids?” the article was based on a “value-added analysis” of student test scores for different elementary teachers. The highly effective ones were able to move below average performers to above average ones in one school year. The average teachers kept them progressing at an average pace. And then there were teachers like John Smith, pictured prominently near the headline, whose students started the year ahead but ended up far behind.