When Polly Jennings picked up The Oregonian in Portland one morning last week, she was appalled to see a photo of her dead son on the center of page one, writes the paper’s public editor, Michael Arrieta-Walden. Jennings had opposed the story, but knew one was being written and had resigned herself to it.
The Oregonian took the rare step of publishing an in-depth story of a subject who died of a drug overdose, despite the strong objections of a parent. The case raises journalism ethics questions, particularly about the competing values of privacy vs. the journalistic responsibility to inform and educate the public. The story reveals the limited rights of sources and the tug of a riveting story on journalists.
Reporter David Stabler pursued the story of Marty Jennings, a brilliant violinist who struggled with heroin addiction and died in a Newport motel shortly after performing. Stabler and his editor were aware that the family was not unanimous in wanting a story published. But they thought the story offered an opportunity to shed light on how addiction could grip a person. The story, they thought, could bust stereotypes and myths about addiction, enlightening readers. Given the mother’s reluctance, editors devoted much of two meetings last week before and after its publication to discussing the story and its play.
Marty’s father, Forrest Jennings, encouraged a story because he concluded his son’s story could be of value to the public. “I thought that there could be some good that could come from it. It could serve as a cautionary tale and have some people better understand Marty,” he says.
Robin Allred, Marty Jennings’ girlfriend, says she was willing to be interviewed but now wishes an article had never been written. She thought the story focused so much on music and heroin that it did not reflect the richness of Marty Jennings’ life. She also believes the story unintentionally glorified heroin use and failed to show how sick it made Marty Jennings.
Editors discussed many times whether to proceed with the story, and if so, how, Arrieta-Walden says. They carefully weighed significant facts that nudged them toward publishing, such as factoring in that Marty Jennings was an adult at age 32; that most of those close to him approved of a story; that what happened to him was broadly known in the community; and that he was prominently known as a musician and member of the symphony. At the forefront of their thinking was the fact that a newspaper’s key obligation is to inform and shed light on all aspects of the community so that citizens can be better informed. Those considerations stacked up against Polly Jennings’ wishes and pain, and in the end they decided it was a story worth telling.