News director editorial on releasing new mother's photo

Published On: Jan 24 2014 03:32:02 PM CST   Updated On: Jan 24 2014 03:43:23 PM CST

In the interest of transparency, I want to take a moment to talk about KWCH-12's decision to show the picture of the mother who left Via Christi St. Joseph's hospital after giving birth to a child earlier this week.  These types of decisions were never something we took lightly at any station I've worked at, and I'd say we are even more careful with them at KWCH.  (I've been the News Director here for ten months.)

We received the picture of the unidentified mother Thursday during Wichita Police's daily briefing.  During our afternoon meeting, news managers, reporters, photographers and anyone else involved with making decisions about the show gathered to discuss whether to release the mother's photograph.

Here's what we knew Thursday:  Monday night, the mother gave birth to a boy.  She then checked herself out of the hospital the next morning, against the advice of doctors.  Wichita Police told us she had given a false name to doctors.  We also knew from the police report the day before the woman's age and some details about her home life.  We had already contacted police and they told us the reason they wanted to release the photograph was not to prosecute her, as the Newborn Infant Protection Act shields mothers from prosecution, but rather because they had genuine concern about the health of the mother.

Here's the statement released to us by WPD spokesman Doug Nolte:

"The Wichita Police Department is asking for the public's assistance in locating this unidentified woman to check her health and well-being.  We don't expect there to be any prosecution for leaving the child at a safe location."

The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics requires journalists to carefully consider the following when we report on a story:

·        Seek truth and report it

·        Minimize Harm

·        Act Independently

·        Be accountable

At greatest issue for us in this discussion:  Minimizing harm.  What was more important?  To release this woman's picture and compromise her privacy so her health could be checked, and treated if she was injured or sick?  Or protect her privacy, possibly at a risk to her health.

There are also secondary consequences to our decision:  If we compromise her privacy, it might prevent another mother in a similar situation from coming forward and dropping off her baby with the protections allowed by the Safe Haven Laws.

One other thing we considered: while the Newborn Infant Protection Act protects a mother from prosecution, it does NOT guarantee a mother's privacy.

It was not an easy choice, and there was plenty of discussion in this newsroom. There were tough consequences and strong arguments on either side of the decision.  The overwhelming feeling from our journalists was because police told us they were looking for the woman to check her health -- and there could have been a serious issue with her health -- that it was incumbent on us to show her picture.

I was one of those who supported releasing the picture.  Imagine the woman was found at her home days later and had died from internal bleeding.  I know I would have felt a lot of guilt knowing that I deprived thousands of viewers from seeing this woman's face and hopefully identifying her, and maybe saving her life.

Fast forward to Thursday at 9 p.m.  We received word from police that they had found the woman and she was in good health.  We immediately made steps to report the story without using the woman's picture and without identifying her.  And we took steps to remove any pictures of the woman from our website, social media, and our newsroom archives.

At that point, as she was identified, there was no necessary reason to show her picture.

Three things I'll say in hindsight - as we spent Friday morning re-evaluating how we handled the decision.  (As we do in all of these situations.)

One - If we had it to do all over again, I think we would have chosen to be more sensitive in how we reported the story.  We could have reported that police and the hospital were looking for a woman that walked away from St. Joseph's against doctor's wishes and that woman might have risks to her health.  In this example of reporting, we still show the woman's face, but don't give any information about the details of her giving birth and leaving the hospital.  Still, one of our reporters questioned doing that today; and rightly so.  Reporting the story this way means we are censoring the news, and leaving out key information (the fact that she just gave birth) that could make the story more urgent and important to some viewers. 

Still, we do this every day.  When we shoot video at a traffic scene and there is a dead body or other evidence of severe trauma, we generally choose not to show those images to be sensitive to our viewers and family members of the victims, as long as the story can be told without it, while not compromising our ethics.

Second, we should have done a better job of trying to understand why the hospital released the picture to the police.  We knew Thursday that doctors at the hospital had a genuine concern for the patient, and they had contacted police, and provided the surveillance photo to officers.  But, could the hospital, under the protection of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), have refused to provide the picture to police in order to protect the woman's identity?  Could they have provided the picture but asked police to be sensitive in how it was released?  Did they even know it was being released to the media?  Those same laws might have prevented the hospital from answering our questions.  But we should have asked.  Friday, we got clarification from Via Christi spokeswoman Roz Hutchinson:

"We never released anything to the media.  We did not ask anyone to do anything on our behalf.  We simply made a report to law enforcement because we had good faith reason to believe there was a potential serious threat to the life and health of the mother.  That is one of the exceptions under HIPAA."

That was part of the focus of Friday's story.

Third, we should have been more transparent with you, our viewers, on Thursday.  Explaining upfront why we made the decision we made.  Rather than forcing you to guess, or question us.  We will do a better job of this in the future.  I want to add that we take the same care in making all decisions (though not all are as complex as this) every single day in our newsroom.  It does make our job challenging.  But, it is what you expect of us.  We wouldn't want to do it any other way.

We appreciate the feedback you have given us as this story has developed.  Please know that no one expects more from us than we do ourselves.   We take our role as journalists in our community very seriously and we do our very best to uphold the tenants of journalism each and every day.

For reference here's the text of the Safe Haven Law:

Kansas Statutes Annotated - Chapter 38 - Article 22 - Newborn Infant Protection Act

(a) This section shall be known and may be cited as the newborn infant protection act.

(b) A parent or other person having lawful custody of an infant which is 45 days old or younger and which has not suffered bodily harm may surrender physical custody of the infant to any employee who is on duty at a fire station, city or county health department or medical care facility as defined by K.S.A. 65-425, and amendments thereto. Such employee shall take physical custody of an infant surrendered pursuant to this section.

(c) As soon as possible after a person takes physical custody of an infant under this section, such person shall notify a local law enforcement agency that the person has taken physical custody of an infant pursuant to this section. Upon receipt of such notice a law enforcement officer from such law enforcement agency shall take custody of the infant as an abandoned child. The law enforcement agency shall deliver the infant to a facility or person designated by the secretary pursuant to K.S.A. 2012 Supp. 38-2232, and amendments thereto.

(d) Any person, city or county or agency thereof or medical care facility taking physical custody of an infant surrendered pursuant to this section shall perform any act necessary to protect the physical health or safety of the infant, and shall be immune from liability for any injury to the infant that may result therefrom.

(e) Upon request, all medical records of the infant shall be made available to the department of social and rehabilitation services and given to the person awarded custody of such infant.

Click here for background on HIPAA.