‘An Ethical Obligation to Care’ When Reporting

‘I try to write like people’s lives depend on my words,’ says Jenny Abamu.

While working as a journalist in New York City at the start of her career, Jenny Abamu experienced firsthand one of the challenges of daily breaking news coverage in a huge media market. Her job, at the television station NY1, required quickly moving from one assignment to the next, even on the same day.

At times she felt like part of the “media herd” chasing shiny objects, Abamu recalled recently to EWA. She felt she moved on from stories that deserved more depth and context.

“I felt like I was slipping in and out of people’s lives,” she said.

One assignment led Abamu to the home of a woman whose father had been hit by a car the night before and killed. There was no other family, no one at all, to console the daughter. Abamu was there to get a story.

The daughter, still in shock, at one point started cooking dinner for her father, who was never returning home. She would “break down in tears” when she remembered her father was dead, Abamu recalled.

Meanwhile, news kept breaking. Abamu’s assignment editor called and told her to go to the next assignment. She stayed anyway.

“I quickly realized that breaking news was not what I wanted to do,” said Abamu, who now covers education for the Washington, D.C.-based public radio station WAMU. “I was constantly responding to things around me without having the time to take things in and dig deeper.”

Earlier this year, while reporting on the use of seclusion and restraint in Washington, D.C.-area schools, Abamu reached out to parent groups and organizations for people with special needs, and responses flooded in — at all hours of the night and sometimes on weekends. And she listened.

Her reporting exposed a pattern in the Fairfax County, Virginia, school system of failing to report instances in which students were physically restrained or isolated. Some parents told Abamu their children were traumatized by repeated seclusion.

There has to be a more empathetic way to do the job of reporting, Abamu said. That’s one reason why, after studying education systems and policy in college, she decided to pursue a career in journalism.

The following is a Q&A with Abamu about her work and how gathering information from people, including those in crisis, does not have to be a heartless act. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jenny Abamu

You’ve talked about wanting to, essentially, democratize information. Your recent coverage of the use of seclusion and restraint in Washington D.C.-area schools really underscores that goal. How does your desire to democratize information factor into your reporting on this topic?

For me “democratizing information” is about helping people understand the systems and policies that impact their daily lives. It’s about making complicated information simple and shining light on topics.

The story on seclusion and restraint was driven by data and policy searches. And as soon as I started asking questions, people began pouring out with stories, documents and more.

For so many of the families, their stories were similar but they thought they were alone. They thought they were the only ones with children experiencing excessive seclusion and restraint and didn’t realize this was systemwide. Shining a light on the system empowered parents to speak out at school board meetings, and to protest and demand changes to system policy.

The use of seclusion and restraint is such a sensitive topic. What kind of response have you gotten from parents about your reporting? How do you approach the emotional aspects of your current stories with the need to objectively report the news?

This is really difficult because I am human. Almost every family I spoke to had heartbreaking stories and they were all in tears. I definitely lost sleep reporting this story because I was deeply disturbed by some of the things I heard. But all of that made me understand the importance of getting the story right, meaning interviewing as many people as possible, fact-checking everything multiple times and, of course, having both editors and lawyers look over the story helped. You need those people to pull you out of the weeds and emotions to focus on the practical questions. I also thought it was important to understand what happened at the district level and not to assume any malicious intent on their part.

It helps to be a local reporter because I have worked with the district before, and they know I will be around for a while. I am part of the community just like they are and the parents are. This reality forces me to try my best to be fair to all subjects in any story.

I have been overwhelmed by the positive responses to the story. I have received many thanks from strangers and people I know. But there is also pressure to do more.

You’ve talked about your need to be human and about being humane in your role as a journalist. What do you mean by that? Why does that trait matter when reporting?

I feel an ethical obligation to care about the consequences of my reporting. How does it change people, how does it impact the system? Who can it hurt, who can it help? These are questions I ask myself all the time. Particularly coming up as a minority who honestly did not trust the media, I have seen how damaging careless words from reporters and the media can be. How it breaks people, how it hurts communities, how it angers communities and that makes me more careful. I try to write like people’s lives depend on my words because sometimes it really does.

Being human and humane also helps build trust. I once heard a journalist say some of his best sources are people he helped put in jail, and that’s sort of the philosophy I like to follow. Because even if it is a tough story, I want to understand the person as a human being, I want to understand the logic behind their actions, and that helps me to be fair in my reporting. I want to be able to look them in the eye after the story runs.

And other times being human means balancing the reporting with empathy for a subject’s situation. As journalists, we ask a lot from our sources. For the seclusion story, people were shaking when talking to me out of fear that the interview would be a violation of their non-disclosure agreements with the district. This led me to not use some interviews though I knew it was on the record and I could. I had to weigh the impact and harm to the person. That was a “human” decision based on empathy, not just news. At the end of the day, those human decisions help me sleep at night.