Beth Keiser left Miami last week because she couldn't tell you a story. After working for five months on a project about the lives of suburban Broward gang girls, the Miami Herald staff photographer quit her job when the paper's senior editors killed her piece.
No one at the Herald questioned the dramatic effect of Keiser's photos. But a compelling story, it appeared, wasn't enough. According to Keiser, the problem voiced by executive-level editors was that the piece was just more bad news. "Without saying it, the implication is, 'We want happy stories,'" says Keiser, who left Miami this past week for a new post with the Associated Press in Chicago. "That is the feeling [among the editorial staff] at the Herald."
Locally, the argument about the value of "happy news" has been most noisily broached by TV stations, such as Miami's WCIX-TV (Channel 6), which pledges family-sensitive newscasts, and WSVN-TV (Channel 7), which pours on the gore. A similar but quieter battle is being fought in executive editorial suites of newspapers nationwide.
"I think newspapers need to tell the uncomfortable truth, but they also need to serve as a beacon for what's possible in the society," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. Clark and others believe media outlets should approach the news with sensitivity to readers' feelings and with an eye toward solving the community's problems, not merely reporting them. "What you may be seeing at the Herald and other papers is a struggle to figure out where the new path is," Clark theorizes.
In August Herald staffers questioned whether heightened sensitivity to the paper's readers was getting in the way of facts. Executive editor Doug Clifton consented to disguise a rape as an "assault" in a story after the unnamed victim's husband, a federal judge, pleaded through his son-in-law that neighbors already knew of the attack and his wife would be traumatized if they understood it to be rape. (The debate was chronicled in the August 18 issue of New Times, in a story entitled "The Compassionate Omission.")
In Keiser's case, the issue involved whether Herald readers should see a story at all. This past January, in the best tradition of enterprise journalism, Keiser had decided to find out why young girls from well-to-do families were turning to violence. With the encouragement of her Broward bureau editors, she spent two months befriending a fourteen-year-old female member of a Sunrise chapter of the International Posse. She was rewarded not only with the confidence of the gang members but also with the trust of the parents who were fighting to understand and protect their children.
At first glance, Keiser noted, the gang possessed none of the attributes of its inner-city counterparts. It was a veritable United Nations of male and female junior gangsters, counting among its membership Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, and Haitians, as well as pasty-faced white kids, many of whom lived in homes that fronted the golf courses of West Broward. In its activities, though, the Posse more than lived up to the gang stereotype. A core group of eight -- sometimes expanding to fifteen, counting hangers-on -- was led by two convicted felons, one of them a murderer. The girls, some of them as young as thirteen, accompanied the older boys when they took part in drive-by shootings, burglaries, and robberies. Keiser was shocked by the combination of violence and control the male members exerted over girls who were barely adolescents. The normal teenage dating ritual had mutated, she says, to the point where the girls accepted the boys' rapes and beatings as an element of gang membership.
By March Broward bureau editors, working with assistant features editor Lynn Medford downtown, had enough enthusiasm about the story to assign a reporter, staff writer Curtis Morgan. In singling out the young girls from privileged homes, and one girl in particular, Keiser, Morgan, and the editors figured they had hit upon a different gang saga. "We felt it was a perfect picture window into the life," says Morgan. Pressing ahead through the spring, Keiser was encouraged when she learned that a Broward grand jury had opened an investigation of suburban gang activity and had interviewed two of the gang chapter's members. That investigation, coupled with the fact that the Herald was covering a significant number of other incidents involving young girls and violent acts, pegged her story to current news events -- and made it all the more compelling.
In June, however, after Keiser had invested five months in the project, Herald managing editor Saundra Keyes spiked it. Keiser's editors had known from the outset that her piece raised troubling legal issues -- namely, the central role played by minors -- and also carried with it the possibility that younger readers might perceive the gang lifestyle as glamorous. But all along, she and her editors say, they had been confident it was a good story that ought to be told.
Though reluctant to comment about a matter that has been decided by their superiors, Keiser's supervisors are clearly unhappy that the photographer's -- and their own -- news judgment was second-guessed in this instance. "We all thought it was an opportunity for an intimate look at a troubling subject," says David Walters, director of photography for the Herald's Broward bureau and Keiser's direct supervisor.
"As a reader I would have liked to have read that story," seconds Lynn Medford.
Newspapers view the story-selection process as proprietary and guard it like the secret formula for Coca-Cola. Herald executive editor Doug Clifton, who backed Keyes's move, has this to say about killing Keiser's piece: "I don't want to talk to you about this. It was a news decision the likes of which is made dozens of times."
Keyes herself did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story. But Keiser and Medford say they talked to the Herald managing editor after the decision was relayed, and both say she informed them that the paper is moving toward stories that provide solutions to issues, as well as stories concerning topics that have not yet been written about. Keiser says Clifton further explained to her that having covered gangs, the Herald was no longer interested in covering just another "aberrant section of society."
Says features editor Medford: "I disagreed with [that decision]. I believe that you have to point out problems, make people feel the problems, to get to solutions.
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And I think it is also our role to look at solutions."
Keiser, who had been courted by AP before she pursued the gang story, says her decision to leave her hometown was cemented by the realization that the Herald was not the same newspaper that six years ago drew her directly from college to an internship, and then a full-time job. The 28-year-old photographer's work has garnered awards that include an honorable mention in the 1994 National Press Photographers Association Pictures of the Year. The Herald Keiser wanted to work for was the paper that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1988 for Michel duCille's intimate photo-essay about a neighborhood devastated by crack cocaine. With the demise of her gang story, Keiser says, she discovered that paper no longer existed. "We weren't there to make [readers] feel good about themselves," she asserts. "If all we do is water everything down, then we are not going to affect anything."
Unlike Keiser, neither Medford nor photo director David Walters views the decision as a policy statement by the paper's editors. Though Walters says they were caught "flat-footed" by the rejection from the executive level, he characterizes it as a routine agreement to disagree about the value of one story. "I think this story was more frustrating than most because there was at least a consensus among the middle-level editors," he adds.
Ironically, although it didn't initially fulfill the Herald's happy-ending requirement, Beth Keiser's story ultimately got one. Keiser says that when she informed Doug Clifton that the young girl she profiled has given up drugs and is fighting the temptation to return to the gang, Clifton told her the reversal kindled his interest. "I told him he killed the story too soon," Keiser says. Then she departed for Chicago.
The 30 photos Keiser had culled from her five months did not go to waste. When she showed them to her new employers, they were impressed. "I am going to work for a company that loves the story," she reports. "They want me to do [one like] it in Chicago.