Yes, the Chronicle can still surprise us

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In this blog’s first year (yes, it’s almost been one year), we’ve documented plenty of problems in Houston Chronicle copy. We’ve criticized strange editorial decisions. We’ve occasionally played a role in getting the newspaper to correct errors.

Frankly, we didn’t think that newspaper could surprise us any more.

We were wrong.

A reader called our attention to a “personal essay” by Kristin Finan that I missed while out of town last week. The essay recounts Ms. Finan’s impersonation of a Hurricane Katrina evacuee in order to get herself into the George R. Brown Convention Center to observe and later write about the goings on.

Yes, you read that correctly. The journalist apparently passed herself off as an evacuee, actually took up the time and resources of the volunteer effort at the George R. Brown, and later wrote about it. Here is an excerpt of her own words:

I learned a long time ago not to say the words “I know what you’re going through” to people who are suffering because, in most cases, I don’t.

So in an effort not to wear but maybe take a step in their shoes, I spent Wednesday night at the George R. Brown Convention Center with more than 1,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

My evening began at Intake, where volunteers asked me a list of questions such as “Do you have any immediate medical conditions?” “Are you seeking any family members?” and “Do you know your Social Security number?” and gave me an identification badge.

Another volunteer showed me around the center, which was divided into sections such as a “shopping area” for donated clothing, a medical area and color-coded sleeping areas.

I set up my cot to the left side of the Blue section, which was filled with comforter-covered air mattresses, bags of clothes and children throwing Nerf balls and playing double Dutch.

So, this journalist (I’ve emailed to ask for her exact affiliation with the Chronicle) took up the time of multiple volunteers not to mention resources devoted to helping the evacuees, and her account gives the strong impression (although it does not come right out and say) that she misrepresented herself in order to get in. Very nice.

As a result, she learned this:

At the end of the day, many would still be exactly where they were when it began — uncertain of how to restart their lives.

I got in my reliable car and headed to my steady job.

I’m glad I never told any of the evacuees I know how they’re feeling.

I have no idea.

Unbelievable.

If Ms. Finan lied to get herself into the Convention Center just so she could satisfy her own curiosity and please the Chronicle‘s editors, shame on her and on them. Perhaps they all need a little refresher on these relevant portions of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

  • Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

Even if Finan didn’t lie to get herself in to the Convention Center but somehow wasted the time and resources of these volunteers by convincing them to let her so she could engage her own “lurid curiosity” as a pretend-evacuee, she and her editors still deserve scorn for the decision to tie up those same volunteers instead of engaging in useful volunteer work themselves.

The Chronicle is going to have a hard time topping this one.

UPDATE (09-13-2005): Contrast that reporting with Chronicle all-around good guy Ken Hoffman’s account of his own Wednesday night volunteer experience at the Reliant Center. It’s good reading from a class act.


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Kevin Whited
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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX