A reporter is sent on an unusual assignment. A distraught women claims to have a deceased man's scalp and the reporter has been chosen to cover the story. Upon his arrival, the teary-eyed women implores the reporter to take the man's remains to the coroner. It sounds like the plot for an episode of Picket Fences
, but for police reporter Steve Lannen at the Herald-Leader in Kentucky this perplexing scenario was far more than just a plot device.
As reported by metro editor Peter Baniak for the Behind the Headlines
It was one of the strangest phone calls I've taken as metro editor at the Herald-Leader -- and I've taken plenty of odd phone calls over the years. The woman on the line was despondent because she said the county coroner had left her friend's scalp in wooded area along Newtown Pike. The man had died there, apparently under accidental circumstances, and the coroner had removed the rest of the body several days earlier. But the woman said a piece of her friend's scalp, including hair, had been left behind. Further, she said she couldn't get the coroner's office to come out and get it.
After arriving to meet the women, Lannen quickly found himself in a predicament as she pleaded with him to take the man's scalp to the coroner's office. The coroner had refused to come out and pick it up so she had taken it upon herself to wrap the remains in a plastic bag and store it in her freezer. Now he had a dilemma: he could act as a supportive member of the community and deliver the man's scalp to the coroner or he could maintain his distance and objectivity as a journalist. Lannen decided it was more important to help the women out than it was to stay out of the story and drove the body parts to the coroner.
Despite the ethical questions which were now central to the story, Steve Lannen still wrote the story
for the paper. He referred to himself as "the reporter" when disclosing how he had taken possession and delivered the remains. As Lannen describes it, "In my gut, I suppose I knew I was crossing some journalism ethics line, but I couldn't think of anything better..." but if he did cross a line, when did he cross it, and what should he have done instead?
As I see it, the only transgression is the failure to clearly disclose that it was Lannen, the writer, and not some other reporter who had delivered the scalp to the coroner. Sometimes objectivity becomes impossible given certain situations and the only sensible journalistic approach becomes transparency and full-disclosure. While the Herald-Leader certainly made an effort to maintain transparency through the truly bizarre situation, the use of the ambiguous, "the reporter" fails to identify how the very writer of the story became a subject in the article as well.
The solution put forward by the assistant metro editor Dori Hjalmarson, who ultimately edited Steve's story, is probably the strongest approach:
I believe a different reporter should have taken over the reporting once the first reporter became part of the action. I believe a fair and objective observer is needed to tell a news story the right way, and anyone who is a character in the story should not be presented as objective.
The reality is that it is not always possible to put an additional reporter on a story, and had Lannen been more clear about his own involvement in the story that it would've been an unusual but acceptable departure from the traditional rules that govern objectivity in journalism.