Fact-checking the vulnerable

By Joanna Plucinska

Journalists often see their role as giving voice to the voiceless. But in reporting on vulnerable or traumatized individuals, we are at risk of further victimizing our subjects if we don’t report their stories ethically. Vulnerable populations are broadly defined. They can be, among other groups, the elderly, the young, the traumatized, the abused, or the sick. How do we explain to a vulnerable source how their story will be presented in the media or what potential risks they may face by speaking to a reporter? Additionally, how do you ensure the accuracy of someone’s testimony? How trustworthy is an individual’s memory, especially when they’ve been traumatized? Should we risk retraumatizing them by taking a deeper dive to verify that what they are saying is true?

To introduce this topic, professor Marguerite Holloway outlined the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical guidelines for scientific experiments developed in response to the crimes of Nazi doctors during World War II. We discussed the importance of informed consent, the subject’s ability to withdraw from a study and the need for such studies to lead to the greater good of society. Even though the scientific community has had these guidelines from 1947 on, researchers and physicians struggled to abide by them in the coming decades.

Journalists have often pointed out these ethical failures. For example, the New York Times exposed the Tuskegee scandal in 1974, a study in which doctors did not treat a group of African-American men with syphilis for up to 40 years, despite the development of penicillin treatment during that time. But journalists should also analyze the ethics of our own work at times, especially because we aren’t under the same scrutiny other professions are. Unlike doctors or scientists, journalists don’t have institutional review boards (IRBs) in place. Unethical reporting might later be tried in the court of public opinion, but only after sources may have been hurt, often in unintended ways.

binjamin w image copy

Cover of Fragments, Binjamin Wilkomirski’s contested story of the Holocaust.

The FASPE fellows’ discussion began at Collegium Maius with a modern take on reporting on a vulnerable population. We examined Amy Harmon’s piece about a romance between two young people on the autistic spectrum. The story shows the complexities of living with this disorder and navigating a relationship. Both the main characters had already publicly discussed the nuances of their disorder on Internet forums and had exposed the complexities of their lives on their own terms. Even so, we talked about the ways in which the main characters might be considered vulnerable and how a journalist might try to ensure that the sources have a version of informed consent.

We then looked at a case of fact-checking that was potentially harmful to carry out. Binjamin Wilkomirski’s book, Fragments, examined his childhood memories of growing up first in Latvia, then in concentration camps and then with a foster family in Switzerland. He states clearly that his book is entirely based on his photographic memory and that some anecdotes may lack precision. While he initially earned awards and rave reviews for his book, several journalists took issue with what they saw as more than minor factual inaccuracies.

Reporters uncovered documents that seemed to prove that Wilkomirski, who grew up with the name Bruno Dosekker, had in fact lived in Switzerland for most of his early life and had never left the country during World War II. Wilkomirski and his supporters spoke out vehemently against this denigration of his story and argued that his memories should still be seen as valid. He also stated that the outcry against his work retraumatized him. Even if Wilkomirski truly believed that he had lived through these experiences, should he and others have published his autobiography?

Some fellows pointed out that fiction would have better suited Wilkomirski’s story. But, as Professor Andie Tucher pointed out, the case of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird suggests otherwise. While Kosinski referred to the book as fiction, he still claimed it was largely based on his life. It turned out that the story had little to do with his, or any, reality.

In the case of Holocaust survivors, stories are now extremely difficult to verify, but new narratives continue to appear. How do we define the differences between testimony and fact, or empathy and understanding? Some fellows said that when relying heavily on harrowing and emotional stories we risk devaluing these stories as mere emotional tourism.

Some historians are now calling for a more sober, removed and factual narrative about the Holocaust. In this case, the work of historians who didn’t live through the Holocaust could add to the emotional accounts of survivors. While telling stories about trauma is important, some fellows argued that removing emotion from the equation can help validate the stories of many survivors.

In all these discussions, one conclusion continued to come up: fact-checking can strengthen and further legitimize a victim’s story. The need for fact-checking, which can be carried out in an understanding and gentle way, will in the long run only improve the story that eventually runs. It’s up to the journalist to carry it out in an ethical and balanced manner.


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