Wick Communications

An abundance of caution

In Ethics on 9 May 2013 at 3:22 pm


A couple of weeks ago, one of the writers at the Half Moon Bay Review approached me with a story idea. She was working on a story about local meetings of the group known as Alateen – an offshoot of the more familiar Alcoholics Anonymous that focuses on the needs and concerns of teens who are touched by alcoholism in their families. In the course of her reporting, she met a 16-year-old who said she was seeking help for “cutting.”

If you have never heard of this terrifying phenomenon before, it is a form of self-harm that, according to the Mayo Clinic, is linked to depression, eating disorders, frustration, shame and a range of unfortunate realities that confront today’s teenagers.

Our reporter sat down with the girl and her mother and conducted an on-the-record interview.

The story is poignant and heart-wrenching. It also hasn’t yet found its way into our pages. The reason is that the subject matter makes me nervous. Let me explain.

There were a couple of red flags. The first was that the teenager and her mother say it all started after a confrontation with the girl’s father. (Mom and dad are now divorced. I’m told the father may have had a drinking problem.) The second concern was really the concern of a school counselor, who said she worried that reporting on the problem could encourage copycat behavior.

Neither of these concerns necessarily precludes a story; but I do think they require more thought. And the advantage we have is that this story isn’t tied to a particular event. There is no rush. …

I’m told that the father in question was not interested in telling his side of the story, and that he remains in the area. I decided I couldn’t simply take one side of the story as gospel and let anyone say in our pages that dad was esponsible for this horrible thing. Divorced families can be complicated. Events may have unfolded exactly as mom and daughter suggest, or dad may have an entirely different take on things. I wasn’t comfortable with such a damning, subjective and unsubstantiated charge.

The counselor’s concern was a bit harder to pin down. While we’ve traded voicemails, I haven’t yet heard her out. On the face of it, I’m not inclined to believe that our shining light on the problem will make it worse. To the contrary, my fundamental belief in the power of newspapers suggests that bringing the matter to the attention of families could be a godsend. Few problems are solved by burying them, and besides, I doubt teenaged girls are learning about these things from the Half Moon Bay Review. Our reporter points out there are thousands – thousands, for heaven’s sake – of YouTube videos dealing with every aspect of this issue in terrible detail.

That said, I respect the counselor’s professional opinion enough to know I may be out of my depth. I’m in the process of seeking out some independent expert who can speak to the prevalence of the problem, whether it is growing, how parents should respond and lastly, whether there is reason to worry about this copycat effect.

I just wanted to point all this out in case you find yourself working on a delicate story that has very serious consequences for the people involved. Particularly if the story involves children, I urge you not to get in too big of a hurry. Take the time you need to sort out all the issues.


  1. Clay. Run the story. Let your readers know where and how a young person can get help. Also check the credentials of the school counselor. Education counselors often have more background relevant to guidance in education than they do in helping people through mental illness or addiction. Copy cat? Seriously? The counselor needs a course in media literacy.

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