united states project

Journalist on criticism of ‘neglected child’ broadcast: ‘I reported the facts I was given by the police’

As a local news clip goes viral, critics bring context and more perspectives
July 16, 2014

CHARLESTON, SC — “I reported the facts I was given by the police.”

That’s what broadcast reporter Deon Guillory told me last night over email. I had asked Guillory if he’d been following the pointed criticism of a two-week-old story of his that had suddenly gone viral–becoming the most popular item on the website of WJBF, the ABC affiliate that serves the region along the Georgia-South Carolina border near Augusta.

His report was about a working mother from South Carolina named Debra Harrell, who had been thrown in jail after being charged with “unlawful conduct toward a child.” Although his broadcast had aired July 1, Guillory told me he’d only recently begun getting dozens of emails, Facebook messages, and tweets about the segment. They probably weren’t the kind he was hoping for. His story had blown up in part because it made commentators around the internet angry–angry at what happened, but also at the angle Guillory and his colleagues had taken in reporting it.

Here’s a link to WJBF’s full online story. The video segment is below:

WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken News, Weather, Sports

As you can see, the coverage is a prime example of the kind of quick-hit TV reporting that leans heavily on one version of events–often the official version provided by authorities–but does little in the way of offering additional perspective. There’s a mug shot. There’s a police report. There are “facts given by the police.” An ominous graphic featuring the silhouette of a very young girl and the text, “Aiken County child neglected” flashes on screen as anchor Brad Means kicks the story to Guillory with “details of this investigation.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

So, what are the details? According to the incident report Guillory brandishes on-air, Harrell confessed to leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she went to work. The girl told a witness she would be dropped off “all the time” to play at the park on her own. For lunch, the girl would go to a McDonald’s about a mile and a half away–presumably the one where her mom works, though the report doesn’t specify. “The little girl is fine tonight,” Guillory reports, “but some say the area the mother thought was safe could have turned dangerous.” A woman-on-the-street expresses disapproval: “You cannot just leave your child alone at a public place, especially this day in time.” The mom is in jail. The girl is in the custody of the social services department.

It’s that last bit that sticks out. Whether you see Harrell’s choices as responsible parenting or something to worry about–and people will disagree about that–it’s jarring that the local authorities’ response to this situation was to believe that a mother should be jailed and her child taken into protective custody, unless there’s much more to this story than what WJBF reported. (When I asked Guillory about that, he referred only to what he’d said in his segment.)

Judging by WJBF’s coverage, no one at the station seemed to think the official response warranted scrutiny. But of course, there is another side to this story. Writing for the website of the libertarian magazine Reason, Lenore Skenazy, who founded the “free range kids” movement, added some context. She was able to do so, she told me, after speaking with Harrell’s pro bono lawyer, Robert Phillips. (Phillips didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry from CJR.)

From Skenazy’s July 14 post, which launched this little local story onto the websites of The Atlantic, Slate, Wonkette, and many others:

Here are the facts: Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald’s has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead.

Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park–a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking–two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied.

The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.

Skenazy is an advocate arguing for a particular set of norms and laws about parenting–she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone–and she’s obviously sympathetic to Harrell. But beyond her argument, the simple reporting here brings a valuable additional perspective to the story–one that’s not framed entirely by the police record.

Harrell might not have had a lawyer to interview when WJBF aired its report, but the original coverage could have been mindful of this perspective. Why wasn’t it? Local TV news has a well-earned reputation for emphasizing crime and at times exaggerating risks. But I wonder if this was a sign of something else, too. It’s hard to prove or quantify, but I sometimes get the feeling that angles taken in broadcast news reports seem to mirror the perspective of the source that provided the information. It’s not that the rest of the media are blameless about this, of course, but I’m afraid that sometimes “we’re on your side” can often mean on the side of whoever happens to provide the news first.

For segments that rely on incident reports, that means the police. In this case, Guillory’s response to criticism about how he’d framed his coverage–“I reported the facts I was given by the police”–doesn’t really allay my concern.

If this speculation is on point, we can imagine how the story would be reported if, say, Harrell and her attorney had brought news of the arrest to the station. We might have seen a wholly different treatment to the piece–perhaps one more in line with how Jonathan Chait wrote it up at New York magazine, starting with the headline, “Working Mom Arrested for Letting Her Daughter Play Outside.” Guillory’s report did acknowledge the difficulty in finding affordable childcare, but an alternative report might have dwelled on the obvious welfare policy and work-family issues, as Chait does, and acknowledged that abductions of children by strangers are very rare, as he also does. It might also have wondered what the law says about what actually constitutes criminal neglect, and how those laws are enforced, as Slate’s Jessica Grose did.

Last night, I ran a couple of these critiques by Guillory over email, but he didn’t seem too interested in engaging with them. “It’s two weeks old. I’m happy people are seeing it, but some aren’t stating the facts,” he told me. He added that he thought Skenazy in particular had taken his story out of context, but wouldn’t elaborate.

I don’t agree with that. Whether or not you ultimately agree with Skenazy’s broader arguments, she added morecontext simply by putting those arguments forward and by talking with the mother’s lawyer–and in doing so illustrated how a different perspective was something this story could have used from the beginning. Given the broad circulation of this situation, it sounds like there’s a perfect opportunity for a follow-up to what is now WJBF’s most popular story.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.