Just Because We Can – Should We? Revisiting Narrative Collateral Damage

May 21, 2018

On April 19, FRONTLINE published an insightful story on how DNA found at the scene of a six-year-old California break-in and murder led to the wrongful arrest of an innocent man. 

It was a provocative report, co-published on two partner websites, The Marshall Project and WIRED.com.  Not many of us knew that DNA travels all the time – and not just with its owner.  It hitchhikes along on other people who may have touched you or accidentally lifted it from something you touched.

That’s what happened with Lukis Anderson, who was charged with the crimes because his DNA was found under the dead man’s fingernails. How it got there is a compelling tale, and I won’t spoil it here.

The story recounted how justice was done for Anderson, a 26-year-old homeless man who lay unconscious in a hospital miles away when the crimes, which left a man dead and his ex-wife injured, occurred.

But the victims’ family – forced to relive a horrific ordeal – experienced the retelling of this tale as a case of journalism done to them.

The man, a wealthy Silicon Valley tech investor, suffocated while he was bound and gagged with packing tape. His ex-wife, tied up and beaten, was traumatized. Their mansion was ransacked and looted. Police and court records leading to the prosecutions of the real intruders painted the man as leading a hedonistic lifestyle.

However, in the April retelling, what happened to the family was not the focus of the story. Rather it served as the architecture for the main report, providing a narrative arc to tell a complicated forensic science story.

Soon, there will be a third iteration of this report. FRONTLINE plans to roll out an immersive, virtual-reality version under a Knight Foundation grant supporting innovative efforts and best practices in using VR.

The family has asked that some of the more graphic and sensitive material be removed from the online stories, asserting that it doesn’t damage the DNA narrative. That includes audio of the distressed 911 call the woman made to report the crime. It is now used on social media in a video promoting the story.

The media partners have listened but declined the family’s requests, asserting that they took care to be sure their reporting was “not only scrupulously accurate, but fair and sensitive.”

“The details we included were essential to the telling of the story,” the key editors said in an email to the daughter. It was signed by Raney Aronson, FRONTLINE’s executive producer; Bill Keller, The Marshall Project’s editor in chief, and Nicholas Thompson, WIRED’s editor in chief.

Elaborating in an email to me, they point out that they did not identify the woman in the 911 call.  They added that the report, “is accurate, meets our journalistic standards and illuminates an important public issue.”

To the victims’ daughter, the report included “lurid and gratuitous details” about her parents that didn’t have anything to do with the transference of DNA evidence. It delved into her parents’ marital history and includes a painful description of her father’s corpse and references to a lifestyle that made the home a target for the intruders.

In her complaint to the news organizations and to this ombudsman, she notes the irony of how the report “is supposedly guided by moral outrage over how innocent people can be chewed up by the criminal justice system.”

“It would appear that you think it’s appalling when authorities trample someone’s life, but when journalists do it, it’s perfectly fine.”

While I don’t agree with all her points, I do think her assertions go to a fundamental journalistic practice: Journalists use anecdotes and specific incidents to illustrate larger stories all the time. It’s one of the narrative conventions in their toolbox. And, to be sure, the news organizations involved in this report are some of profession’s most respected standard bearers.

They reject any suggestion that the victims’ family should feel they had journalism done to them. “What was done to them was this terrible crime, and as painful as it may be, that story sits at the center of the emerging issue of secondary DNA transfer,” the editors said in the email to me. They also said the family declined to speak to them on the record before publication and now want material removed afterward.

Journalists, of course, have no inalienable right to an interview.  But the idea that accuracy and the pursuit of a bigger story should trump other concerns veers out of my comfort zone. In today’s landscape, where the public has lost so much trust in the media and is all too aware of efforts to drive traffic, perhaps it’s time to embrace a do-less-harm policy, one that embraces a more generous dose of empathy.  

Even filmmaker Spike Lee took pains to do less harm. Before inserting into his new film "BlacKkKlansman" footage of the car that plowed through the white supremacist crowds in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, Lee said he called her mother.

“I was not going to put that murder scene in the film without her blessing,” Lee said.