How Far is Too Far? Investigative Journalist Highlights One Case, Many Dilemmas

February 19, 2007
Robert O'Neill

A profoundly mentally disabled woman is raped at a nursing facility by the young male attendant who is supposed to be caring for her. The resulting pregnancy goes undetected for seven months, misdiagnosed in a variety of ways.

Aside from the obvious tragedy of the young woman’s silent plight, the appalling incident and the news stories that sprang from it also provided a virtual case study in journalism’s treatment of delicate yet compelling issues.

Nieman Fellow Renee Ferguson, the investigative reporter with Chicago’s NBC affiliate WMAQ who broke the story in 2005 after she was alerted by the victim’s mother, discussed those journalistic and ethical dilemmas in a presentation hosted by the Shorenstein Center on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

This was “a not so perfect story,” Ferguson said, in which many of the traditional rules journalists have adopted, such as not identifying victims of sexual violence, were broken.

In a lively discussion, audience members and Ferguson debated issues including the identification of a victim who could not give permission and was a ward of the state, and whether pictures of the victim receiving medical treatment prior to the birth of the baby should have been shown.

Ferguson said that dramatic images and human stories do not drive her investigative work, which is often limited to newspaper-style graphics, but they do often allow the story to be told better in the medium of television. In this case, the power of the story helped drive an investigation into the nursing facility, its care of patients and its hiring practices.

“In my thinking, (the victim) couldn’t speak for herself,” Ferguson explained. But through the story, “she did.”

Participants also discussed the decline of investment by local television stations in fields such as investigative and political reporting, and the rise of an entertainment-driven news culture.

“A lot of what we put on the air is driven by marketing, and I’m appalled by that,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson has three decades of experience and recognition for her work includes seven Chicago Emmys, the duPont Award, the Gracie Award, the Studs Terkel Lifetime Achievement Award and most recently the Associated Press Award for best investigative reporting. In 2001, Ferguson was a finalist for the Shorenstein Center’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.

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