Friday, May 18, 2007

Whose story is it?

This week I've had to ask myself a lot of tough questions. I'm reporting on incarcerated mothers for Medill Reports. I've had trouble convincing incarcerated moms to let my videotape them interacting with young children. Nearly all of the seven women I've tried to recruit as my "face" have had reservations about including their kids in the story.

Some mothers worried that students at their childrens' schools would see the film, then stigmatize their young sons or daughters. Mothers who are working on regaining custody of the children worried that participating in the piece would jeopardize their parental rights. Other mothers worried about what they might accidentally say or do -- and whether that could affect their already strained relationship with their children in the future.

Regardless of why they resisted being interviewed, I found most of the women cared about their kids.

I had to ask myself, did I care about their kids, too? To be honest, I admire the hesitation these women showed about letting my shoot video of their little ones. Most of the children were elementary school age, when other kids can be mean.

A 7- or 8-year-old Misa would have been horrified if all of the other students discovered such a family secret. I know I would have faced a backlash among my peers at school. I can't even imagine the kind of stigmatization that might create.

If I were to step outside of reporter mode for a moment, I'd say forget using the kids. I would use the mom, show the children's hands and feet, and assign pseudonyms. But ... I'm still a reporter.

And I need the b-roll. My face is a grandmother who was willing to let me interview her daughter and grandson. I'm still wondering about how much I should show of her 8-year-old grandson. I don't HAVE to use the b-roll of the grandmother and her grandson playing Nintendo or rock-paper-scissors. But it makes the story more compelling, more emotive.

Much of this dilemma boils down to the question: "Why am I covering this subject?" I don't want a series of talking heads. There's no feeling there, no sense of how the treatment of incarcerated women will affect lives.

I tried to think about whom my 5-minute piece will ultimately affect: viewers who know nothing about incarcerated mothers, people who work with incarcerated mothers, and -- of course -- the incarcerated mothers. In this case, the woman I inteviewed will probably be affected most.

She was OK with me filming her grandson and felt her message could help other women like her. It's my duty to make the story worth watching. Otherwise, I'm wasting everyone's time -- the viewer's time, my time and the grandmother's time.

In the end, this is her story and if she's OK with sharing it, I guess I should be OK with it, too.