By: Joe Strupp
When The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune published a photograph of two pregnant girls with their shirts pulled up, just enough to expose their swollen bellies, the shot added insight to a story on local teen mothers-to-be.
But it also might cost the newspaper more than $300,000 after the girls filed a lawsuit accusing the newspaper of lying to get the photograph and taking the picture without parental permission.
“We are talking about layers of inappropriate conduct,” says Michael Foster, an attorney representing the teens. “These are young girls who have already had some misfortune in their lives and should not be preyed upon to sell newspapers.”
The legal action raises a number of journalistic issues, according to newspaper observers, such as the right to photograph minors in a public-school setting and the impact of lying to a subject in seeking permission for a photograph to be taken.
“If a photographer lied, that is wrong and unethical,” says Keith Woods, who teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Research in St. Petersburg, Fla. “The photographer owes a great deal of care and caution when the subject is something like teen pregnancy.”
The suit, filed June 2 in Alameda County, Calif., Superior Court, names The Oakland Tribune, its parent Alameda Newspaper Group, and the Oakland Unified School District as defendants. The suit seeks at least $300,000 in compensatory damages, along with unspecified punitive damages and court costs.
The defendants have until July 16 to formally respond to the lawsuit.
The legal action was brought by Moneisha Williams, 15; her mother, Anita Williams; and Jamila Stevenson, 18. Both girls were students at Oakland Technical High School on June 6, 1998, when Tribune reporter Zerline Hughes and photographer Velina Nurse visited the school for a story about a school district child care program for teen mothers.
The suit alleges that Hughes was allowed to interview Williams, 14 at the time, and Stevenson, 17 at the time, without parental permission. The lawsuit also alleges that Nurse posed the girls with their shirts up to show their stomachs, and told them that the photo would not appear in the newspaper.
“The conduct of the school district was outrageous in that it directed ? Moneisha and Jamila to provide confidential information to the Tribune,” the lawsuit states. The school district “further directed and encouraged the plaintiffs to pose for degrading, dehumanizing, and semi-nude photographs.”
On June 9, 1998, the Tribune ran the photo of the two girls on the front page of the 66,000-daily-circulation newspaper’s local section, with a story about the child care program, according to the suit. The accompanying story also quoted Williams about the need for such a program.
John Carne, attorney for the Alameda Newspaper Group, which is owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group, says he has had little time to review the case or the decisions that went into publication of the photo. But he says the newspaper will do everything to protect its free-press rights.
“We’re in the business of trying to protect the rights of journalists to make journalistic decisions,” says Carne. “I don’t know what the first move will be. We’ll explore the legal theories and look at all of the options.”
Roy Combs, general counsel for the Oakland Unified School District, also would not speculate on the case, but says his client’s defense will center on the right of the press to publish. “There are board policies and state law regarding the rights of the news media that address the right of the press to gather information,” says Combs. “We will review all of it.”
Foster, who is normally on the defense side of civil litigation, says he took the case because it represented such a serious misuse of press power.
“We just want to make sure that this never happens again,” says Foster, who adds that both girls gave birth to healthy children. “We’re not lawyers that file actions frivolously.”
Tribune editor Charles Jackson, who says he had been at the newspaper for only two weeks when the photo was published, says he did not review it because he had other pressing matters surrounding Page One. But he says he would not have allowed the photo to run if he had seen it.
“Hell no,” says Jackson. “If I had reviewed it, it never would have gotten in the paper.” Jackson says neither Hughes nor Nurse is now with the Tribune. He says Hughes, who was a college intern at the time, is now interning elsewhere. Nurse was fired about eight months after the photo ran, Jackson says, but for reasons having nothing to do with the photo.
“It’s just one of those things that happens,” says Jackson, who says he now makes sure to review the local section. “It wasn’t done in any kind of malicious way; we have always had a good relationship with the school district.”
But Woods points out that newspapers need to take into account all effects of running a photo involving children, even with their permission. “News organizations have to have a higher sense of potential consequences than those of the people they speak to,” he says. “Everybody involved in the newspaper production owed it to the children to ask tough questions about taste and harm.”
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