First Person

The voiceless have a voice. A journalist’s job is to amplify it.

May 18, 2016

One of the first things I noticed about Bridget Hegarty was her voice.

It was a strong voice, but a pained one. Three years earlier, as a 17-year-old student at a Catholic high school, she’d been raped and decided to have an abortion. “My understanding was that I was going to kill my child,” she told me.

I was interviewing her in 1996 for a story about women’s decisions in difficult pregnancy situations. Hegarty insisted that she needed to regain control of her life. Hers was the most compelling voice I heard in 11 interviews on the subject. She was the first woman quoted in my story for the Omaha World-Herald.

I think I heard from her after the story ran, that she was pleased, despite some hostile feedback. I had moved on to the next story by then, and our paths didn’t cross again for years. She was one of those sources I thought about occasionally, though, wondering how her life unfolded and whether my story was worth the harassment that I was sure it had brought.

I found out last Christmas Eve, more than 19 years after the story was published.

Hegarty found my professional page on Facebook and messaged me, delivering the most satisfying piece of feedback I’d received in more than four decades as a journalist:

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“You helped give what happened to me a voice. It was a voice that I can now use, and do use every day of my life. You gave my voice confidence and reassurance when I thought that part of me was gone forever.”

I fought back tears as I read her message. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and Poynter’s Guiding Principles say that journalists should “give voice to the voiceless,” and I treasured this affirmation that I had met this high calling of journalism.

Giving voice to the voiceless is sometimes more a cliché than an ethical cornerstone of journalism. You can read through whole editions of most newspapers or magazines, or watch a full network or local newscast, without finding anything that would qualify.


We go out into our communities and there are these living books with important stories to tell. These people have the voices, but they don’t have the means to get heard.”


“We give more voice to the voiceful than to the voiceless,” says Aly Colón, Knight Professor in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University. “We need to walk the streets of our communities. We need to see people. We need to hear them. We need to hear their voices.”

And that is hard, not only for journalists, but also for our subjects: An undocumented worker may fear that an interview will lead to deportation; a worker unemployed for months may be embarrassed to talk publicly. Hegarty told me her story only after listening to me interview her friend, who had also had an abortion.

“It’s a huge act of courage for people to say, ‘Sure, come into my life, watch this happen, and write about it for all these people to read.’ And so what we try to do is, we try to honor that courage by doing a good job telling their stories and doing it fairly and honestly,” Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow told PBS NewsHour after winning a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for a series chronicling the lives of people who rely on food stamps to survive.

Kelly McBride, Vice President for Academic Programs at the Poynter Institute, says that while it may not be routine, “there are many, many journalists and journalism organizations that are doing a great job of giving voice to the voiceless.” And it’s not just traditional newsrooms that seek out the unheard voices, she added. “BuzzFeed does an amazing job of elevating the voices of victims of sexual assault,” as well as unheard voices in the LGBTQ community and voices that represent diversity, says McBride, co-author of The New Ethics of Journalism.

And while the institutional focus of many news beats points reporters routinely to the same official voices–lawmakers, bureaucrats, spokespeople–McBride knows medical reporters who excel at giving voice to patients, education reporters who focus on students, and public safety reporters whose stories always include the voices of victims and defendants. “Good journalists have always figured out that within the beat structure, the best stories are those that aren’t being told.”


Bridget Hegarty reached out to the author of this story nearly 20 years after he interviewed her about being raped and choosing an abortion. (Steve Buttry)

I was among those journalists who spent more of my career parroting the powerful and echoing the spokespeople than listening to and telling the important stories locked inside the hearts and minds of people too fearful, humble, ashamed, or traumatized to speak up. Yet, I got it right on the story about troubled pregnancies. I don’t share this tale to boast about the quality or impact of my journalism, but to illustrate the importance of amplifying voices we seldom hear.

As I reflected on Hegarty’s Facebook message, it occurred to me that the nod to the “voiceless” in our ethics codes has an arrogant ring to it: pretentiously empowering journalists to “give voice,” as though we are miracle workers able to restore speech to the mute with the touch of a pen or microphone.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that “we become their megaphones,” Colón says. “We go out into our communities and there are these living books with important stories to tell. These people have the voices, but they don’t have the means to get heard.”

Andrew Seaman, Senior Medical Journalist for Reuters and chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, agrees that this ethical imperative may be a matter of amplification. “With one story, the broadcast or print journalist can reach 100,000 people, maybe more.” Few people, however strong their voices, can reach that large an audience.

Citing Gene Roberts’ and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat, Seaman says journalists covering the civil rights movement did not give voice to the nation’s black leaders, but called attention to powerful and eloquent voices some Americans weren’t hearing or wanted to ignore. 

Similarly, Bridget Hegarty had a strong voice the day I met her. She might have lacked confidence. Maybe people weren’t listening. But when she spoke to me back in 1996, her voice was clear and eloquent. As moved and honored as I was by Hegarty’s 2015 message that I had given her a voice, I set her straight. After thanking her, I said: “It’s a powerful voice and it already was; I think I just gave it confidence and reach.”

After exchanging messages with Hegarty, I decided I needed to hear the voice again, to update it and perhaps amplify it one more time. She hinted that she had stories to share from the past two decades. I was planning a trip to the Midwest in February, and I added a stop in Omaha.


But first some background. In 1993, when I became a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, the paper was covering abortion on an ad-hoc basis: a cops reporter covering a protest, a political reporter covering legislative efforts to restrict abortion, a courts reporter covering challenges to legislation. The editors wanted one reporter covering all abortion stories, and it became part of my job. It was a busy time for abortion-related news in Nebraska and Iowa, and I wrote a lot about the protests and the politics, developing strong relationships with key figures on both sides of the issue.

I set a goal of connecting with women facing difficult pregnancy-related decisions and telling their stories. My editors and I knew it would be a challenge. We wanted to put a face and a name to one of life’s most private decisions and one of politics’ most contentious issues. I set out to find six women–three pro-choice, three pro-life–from varying circumstances, listen to their stories, and persuade them to talk on the record about their experiences.

We agreed that I would let the women decide after their interviews whether I could use their names. Few, if any, would agree in advance to talk on the record about such an intimate, divisive issue. But I wanted to hear their voices, spend an hour or two listening, and take a shot at earning their trust. I had to interview 11 women to find the six who made it into the story, but the five who decided not to let me use their names helped me understand the issue better and win the trust of the six who did.

I met Hegarty through one of the women who decided not to be in the story. An abortion clinic had given that first woman my name and phone number. She called, and we agreed to meet at an Omaha restaurant. She showed up with a friend, which didn’t surprise me. I had done a series on rape in 1993, and often the rape survivors I interviewed had a friend or counselor present for moral support.

The scheduled interview was going well, but I wasn’t maintaining great eye contact. The woman would look down at her food or her hands during difficult parts of her story. The strong eye contact I achieved in that interview was with Hegarty. She looked at me intently the whole time I was interviewing her friend, and I soon suspected that I was auditioning for a second interview–with her. As I was wrapping up, Hegarty asked if I wanted to hear her story. I said I did, and one of the most memorable interviews of my career began.

Hegarty was a senior in high school when she was raped by a boy who wanted to date her. She went to the police, but they told her the accusation would be hard to prove, and her assailant was not arrested. I knew from my reporting on local rape cases at the time that many reported rapes never led to charges, and many charges were plea-bargained away. Meanwhile, Hegarty became pregnant and saw abortion as the only way she could regain control of her life. She told friends who knew she was pregnant that she had miscarried, but rumors of her abortion circulated in school, resulting in a stern meeting in the principal’s office. She was nearly expelled.


Bridget Hegarty says this 1996 Omaha World-Herald story helped her find her voice as she struggled with the aftermath of a 1993 rape and subsequent abortion. (Steve Buttry)

“I just went through hell and back before I got that abortion,” Hegarty said, giving me the first quote I would use in my front-page story.

Rebuked by her school and rejected by friends, she found support and strength at the clinic where she’d had her abortion, Women’s Medical Center of Nebraska. She began to volunteer there, escorting patients from their cars to the clinic door and shielding them from the same protesters she had faced when she came as a patient. Later she joined the staff, informing and counseling patients about the procedure they were considering.

“People were so angry that I was working at that clinic,” Hegarty said in our February interview. “I wanted to prove a point, that people could be OK after rape. … I found people I felt I could trust.”

She found our 1996 interview cathartic. “Talking to you was the first time I got it out and didn’t have anybody looking at me and thinking ‘Why did you think of yourself first?’” Hegarty told me in February. “I realized when I was talking to you–not a therapist, not my family, not a friend–it was the first time I’d spoken about what happened to me without feeling ashamed.”

After the rape, she drank hard and developed an eating disorder. Our interview lightened the burden. “I was never ashamed of what [he] did to me after I talked to you,” Hegarty says. “I remember giving you very angry details about the abortion. It stunned me that I did that without feeling such guilt.”

Hearing this years later underscored for me the importance of listening. I don’t remember asking any tough or insightful questions during that interview. I listened, nodded, took notes. With my eyes and occasionally my voice, I said, “Tell me more.” Your questions don’t always determine the success of an interview. Sometimes, it’s about how well you listen.

I knew as soon as we finished the 1996 interview that I wanted to start my story with Hegarty. As I worked for weeks on the story, I worried that I she would rethink her participation and I would lose her compelling contribution. Hegarty’s mother “went nuts” when she learned the story was coming, Hegarty told me in our recent interview. “She was afraid she’d lose friends over it.” If her mother had prevailed, I would have lost the best voice in the story.

Hegarty also told some of her closest friends about the story before it ran. They supported her decision to speak publicly about an ordeal she had borne mostly in private.

When the World-Herald published the story on Nov. 17, 1996, Hegarty says, “I anticipated negative mail and positive mail. And it all came.” A nun who had taught her Latin in high school “told me I’d burn in hell.” Other notes from rape survivors and abortion patients told Hegarty “they were proud of what I had done and wished they had my voice.”

Attending an event at her old high school after the story was published, Hegarty noticed the principal, “who made my life a living hell,” at the other end of the hallway. They were walking toward each other, but the principal saw Hegarty, pivoted around, and started walking away. The once-tormented girl exulted as a now-confident woman. “It was like, ‘You just backed down, woman!’ She intimidated me so bad my senior year. And now you can’t even look me in the eye and say ‘hello.'”


Your questions don’t always determine the success of an interview. Sometimes, it’s about how well you listen.


Recalling the incident and how speaking out in the newspaper had changed her, Hegarty said, “If I hadn’t done that interview, I would have been the one who turned around.” The interview “changed my personality to some degree,” she says. “I realized I wasn’t ashamed any more. I didn’t want to feel that minimized ever again.”

Though the encounter with the principal was strictly through eye contact, Hegarty found herself using her newfound voice again and again in the years that followed. When an issue arose at the clinic where she was working, she spoke candidly about what she had done and seen. She felt betrayed by bosses and co-workers, but didn’t let the relationships silence her. In a decade working for the Red Cross, she became a union steward, advocating for worker rights within the non-profit giant. She delivered eulogies at both her parents’ funerals. As the coach of her daughter’s basketball team, she exhorts young girls to play with confidence.

After Hegarty married, her pregnancies brought as much joy to her life as the first pregnancy had brought pain. “Whenever I would question my purpose or existence since I was raped—and believe me, it was often—I now know it is entirely for the children I have today,” she said in her Facebook message to me in December. She has a 9-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. “They are my life and my world.”

When the children are older, she will tell them about being raped and choosing abortion. She’s inching that way now, instructing them about good touching and bad touching and affirming her daughter’s assertions when she’s had enough of wrestling with her brother.

Even Hegarty’s casual, friendly voice developed into a strong, life-saving connection. She was a regular at a coffee shop, exchanging daily banter with the barista. One day in 2008, that banter turned serious: the barista confided that her husband was on dialysis and in danger of dying without a kidney transplant. Hegarty couldn’t just offer encouragement. She inquired, underwent testing and learned she was a perfect tissue match. In December 2008, she donated her kidney to the man, who is thriving after the transplant.


As Hegarty moved on with her life after the 1996 interview, I did, too. I left reporting behind and spent much of my time training journalists and planning digital strategy for my employers. I started a blog about journalism, The Buttry Diary. I write frequently about confidential sources and occasionally I post old stories on my blog, noting journalism lessons learned, and sometimes noting how I might approach the story differently today using social media and other digital tools.

In December 2013, I posted the story I had written about Hegarty in 1996, interspersed with a discussion of how I got women to talk on the record. Though my sources had agreed to publication of their names 17 years earlier, that was before the World-Herald published stories online. It was before Google made stories easily searchable for years after publication. The women had agreed to an uncomfortable week or two before my story became old news and most of the people who might have disagreed with their decisions moved on to other matters. So I used only their initials in my 2013 post about updated lessons from the story (I explained my decision in the text).

The post drew little attention. But it was out there for Hegarty to find two years later when, doing some personal research, she typed the name of her abortion clinic into Google. She recognized my name and soon was re-reading the old story, which identified her only as “BH.”


I don’t share this tale to boast about the quality or impact of my journalism, but to illustrate the importance of amplifying voices we seldom hear.


A few days later, she wrote to me. After some emails and Facebook messages, we talked by Skype and agreed to talk again in person. 

As we reconnected, I learned that one of the most important tests of Hegarty’s voice came just a few years ago. As a student working in a maternity unit, she walked into a hospital room “to care for and examine the wife and baby of the pervert who raped me,” Hegarty recalled in a Facebook message.

As she recognized the rapist, “I felt like the air in my lungs got sucked into some sort of vortex from hell.” Her mind raced quickly through a range of options. “As much as I wanted to kill (him) in that moment because of what he did to me and the pain he caused, I also knew, probably because of my maternal instincts since I have children, I had no right to project that pain onto his wife.”

Hegarty excused herself and stepped into the hallway. Compounding her surprise, the rapist followed her into the hallway, calling her by name. The memory still stirs fury. “I wanted to scream at him, punch him, beat the living shit out of him!” she said in the February interview. “But a part of me took over that I never knew was possible in relation to the pain and agony he caused me.”

Instead of encountering violence from Hegarty, the rapist heard her voice, clear and more in control than she felt: “Don’t let your fear over what you did to me ruin this moment for your wife and baby!”

Looking back on the confrontation, Hegarty said, “What came out of my mouth only proved to me that I was no longer afraid of him….I finally knew that over time, even though I was literally faced with my past and reality all in a few moments, my voice was present and strong when he wanted to silence me again. [He] could no longer hurt or control me anymore and he knew it!”

She quickly left and told her supervisor that someone else should examine the mother and child.

“That experience was a true test for me to prove I had the voice that I once thought he stole,” Hegarty said. “And it was even better that I got to personally prove to him that he didn’t take the part of me that mattered the most. … I knew then I was truly living free.”

Steve Buttry is director of Student Media at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He blogs about journalism on The Buttry Diary. Follow him on Twitter @stevebuttry.