What would you do? This image of a man brushing a girl’s teeth with the toothbrush of the girl’s HIV-positive mother, from Sonia Nazario’s 1997 series on children of drug addicts, outraged readers who wondered why the journalists didn’t do something to stop it. (Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times)

In the fall of 1997, the Los Angeles Times published an ambitious 6,500-word front-page feature on the lives of the children of drug addicts. It was written by a young reporter named Sonia Nazario, who was the Times’ urban-affairs writer. She was no stranger to the kind of journalism that pressed her hard against human suffering, beyond the codified barriers that separate source and subject. Three years earlier, while working on a similarly immersive series on childhood hunger, she watched while one family ate three hotdogs, total, for dinner.

She watched children beg their way into play dates for the promise of a meal. She watched a teacher handing out apples be thronged by more hungry students than he could feed.

She never offered help. When a photographer she was working with gave a bag of groceries to one family, Nazario felt he had crossed an ethical line. “I think what was beaten into me early as a reporter was you don’t intervene or change a story that you’re writing about,” says Nazario. As she would patiently explain to each subject at the beginning of her reporting, she was there to observe, to tell a story that alerts the public to problems and hopefully motivates others to address those problems. It is a traditional notion of objectivity that has been American journalism’s defining ideal for more than a century.

But the details Nazario gathered in “Orphans of Addiction,” the piece on the children of addicts, were chilling. She wrote about children being slapped and sleeping on a urine- and semen-soaked mattress; a 3-year-old named Tamika Triggs cut her foot on glass and was left to tend to the wound herself. The most troubling scene, a photograph taken while Nazario was absent, showed a man brushing Triggs’ teeth with her HIV-positive mother’s toothbrush. Her mother had left the room to deal with her bleeding gums.

Readers were understandably outraged. But instead of training their ire at the government agencies whose job it was to protect children, they went after Nazario. Hundreds of readers wrote to the Times criticizing her for not stopping the abuse; some included toothbrushes with their letters. “Was winning an award so important to you that you would risk the life of a 3-year-old child to do so?” wrote one. A child-welfare investigator filed a complaint with the police against Nazario. The pushback against the story was so fervent that the American Journalism Review published a piece that took Nazario to task for her failure to intervene.

The irony is that Nazario’s story had real impact: Within 24 hours of its publication, child-abuse reports in Los Angeles County increased by 20 percent, and eventually rose 45 percent. The county ordered an audit of the Child Welfare Agency and reorganized its reporting hotlines. More federal and state funds were allocated to programs for addicted mothers. The story also improved the lives of the families she’d profiled: The county placed Tamika Triggs in a foster home; her mother was admitted to a choice rehabilitation program. She had forced her readers to empathize and motivated agencies to action—in many ways a best-case scenario for what such journalism can accomplish. “If you can put people in the middle of the misery and have them watch that misery unfold, that’s often the most compelling way to write about these kinds of stories,” says Nazario.

When a junkie he was interviewing went into withdrawal and threw up, David Simon gave him money to go get high.

Yet it’s not hard to understand why readers balked at how Nazario handled her uncomfortably close portrayal of the poor. For one thing, it is human nature to want to help someone who is suffering. But such stories also contain complex and controversial questions of race, class, and power. The journalists who pursue them may consider their motives clear—to focus attention on societal problems in the hopes that they will be solved. But beyond the profession, the interpretation of motives and results when a (typically white) middle-class journalist presumes to tell the story of a poor family (often black or Latino) can be something quite different. Where the journalist sees dispassionate truth-telling, a reader may see exploitation or judgment.

Alexis Fitts and Nicola Pring Alexis Sobel Fitts is a CJR assistant editor, and Nicola Pring is a former CJR intern