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|| News Item: Posted 2006-01-25

Home Alone Dilemma
By Alan Greth, Contra Costa Times

Photo by
I was the senior editor in the Contra Costa Times newsroom on January 2, 2006 when our police reporter Laurie Phillips dug up an interesting story while making her routine police calls that holiday Monday.

She learned that two brothers ages 5 and 9, had been left home alone while their father and stepmother celebrated the new year in Las Vegas. In most of California, the big news that day was flooding due to unrelenting rain. Our front page that evening featured a five column staff picture of a firefighter throwing a sandbag to help shore-up a levee in the Delta, a few miles from our office. The Metro Editor Scott Marshall and I discussed the "home alone" story and we decided to play it on the local section front. At the time, it was a one source story with quotes from the San Ramon police. We did not name the boys at this time.

The next day, after the story was published in the Contra Costa Times, local radio and television stations took the story and ran with it. So did we.

The Next Day
Our reporters found that the children had indeed been left home alone with cereal and frozen dinners to sustain them. After the police got involved, they placed the children with their grandmother in a nearby city. Bow now, the story had "legs" as they say. Print, TV and radio reporters found the grandmother's house and began the business of reporting the story. The grandmother granted several interviews in her apartment and allowed TV and still cameras into the home. One of those still photographers worked for the Contra Costa Times. Together with some solid reporting skills, our reporter and photographer, Tue Nam Ton, found the home and went inside for an interview.

The News Meeting
Our 2:30 PM page one meeting was longer than usual that day as we had a thoughtful and thorough discussion about how we should handle the photographs of the two boys and their grandmother. Several editors at that meeting argued we should run the photograph because the grandmother invited us in.

I am a father of three. I argued that the children were victims of a crime and should not be shown in print. I found myself in the curious position of arguing not to run one of our staff photographs! We knew other newspapers had pictures of the boys, but we decided not to run the pictures. I also argued that we should not name the children, but their names had already been published on our website.

Varied opinions:
Believe it or not, despite contact by the police, the couple did not return to the Bay Area until January 4. This was two days after the children were found, and the couple was located in Las Vegas. They were arrested at the Oakland International airport and escorted to a waiting police vehicle. The debate still rages about our decision not to run the pictures of the boys. I have heard opinions from the publisher on down to the photographer who made the images. As you might imagine, two of our competitors ran a picture of the boys. An average reader would not know about our decision not to run our pictures of the children.

The outcome:
On January 12, 2006 just ten days after the story began, it ended. The couple pleads no contest to child endangerment charges. Our Staff Photographer Bob Larson was in the courtroom for the dramatic conclusion. He made photographs of the couple crying in court. We ran them on page one. Throughout this entire story, we never showed a photograph of the children. A fact I am proud of.

I'm not sure if we learned anything as an institution as a result of this sad story, but I learned something about being a human being.

(Alan Greth is the executive photo editor of the Contra Costa Times. He wrote this originally for the AP Photo Managers Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Greth's member page

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