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Long Shadows of Small Ghosts: How we talk to sources

by on October 20, 2016

I had recently read the book “Long Shadows Of Small Ghosts” by author Laura Tillman.  The book chronicles Tillman’s journey in reporting on a triple murder in Brownesville Texas.  About 10 years ago, John Rubio and his wife killed their three children in their home.  Believing that the children were possessed, the couple carried out a gruesome murder that shocked the community. Contributing factors to the murder may have been: consistent drug abuse, stresses of poverty (common in Brownesville), and mental health issues stemming from experiences in the past as well as possible birth defects caused by parental drug use.

Initially, Tillman was sent to report on what would happen to the building.  While semi-beat up, the building itself was standing and was in comparable condition to many of the buildings in the neighborhood surrounding.  Many people wanted it torn down, potentially us ing the building as a scapegoat or rather a resolution.  Regardless, there has yet to be entire closure on the death of three children.

The author, Tillman, in reporting eventually got in mail correspondence with the father/husband in prison (the wife refused to talk).  The author refused to buy him gifts as to avoid the potential that he saw her as a way out and a friend.  Eventually the author visits the murderer on death row.  The author refuses to smile, believing that Rubio would view this smile as friendship.  She does, however, buy snacks and drinks for him, as on death row there is a vending machine in the meeting room and every convict is eating food their visitors supplied. Tillman spoke, and I asked, what is the difference between a smile and a treat, and how does one draw the line? Does it ever get easier?  She believed not giving the treat were cruel since every other visitor

My question to the class is: the “no gifts” policy very important to a journalist?  What if cruelty comes into question, regarding norms of the surrounding environment (every other inmate is eating).  How do you interact with the power dynamic of you as a journalist being free, and the inmate waiting to get killed with nearly no rights?


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  1. This is a difficult ethical dilemma, no doubt. In the recent meetings, more serious “gifts” to sources were discussed; Tens of thousands of dollars for information. When is it ok? Is it ever ok? And what about smaller, seemingly meaningless gifts like food? It is hard to say what I would do in this situation. On the one hand, reporters are supposed to treat everyone in an unbiased way, as just a human being. But on the other hand, this person is a convicted murderer, and “because all the other prisoners are eating food from their visitors,” does not seem like a valid excuse to me. Personally, I would feel uncomfortable providing snacks to someone I was interviewing. But what if you are meeting your source at a restaurant? Is the simple gesture of buying or receiving a coffee wrong? A conflict of interest? It’s a difficult question, and one that we will encounter over the course of our journalism careers.

    • Good evaluation. My only response would be, if the other prisoners eating is not a valid excuse, what is? Perhaps it is easier for one to say what would cause them to give/accept gifts over deny one.

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