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Monday, July 13, 2009

Sob Story

By now, you may have read the articles, yesterday and today, in The Honolulu Advertiser about the upcoming trial of Susan E. Shaw—who faces 122 counts of identity theft and the possibility of life in prison without parole if convicted. Yesterday’s piece in particular focused on Shaw, and it left me with an icky feeling.

It’s a massive use of newsgathering resources—the piece is nearly 3,000 words long, gargantuan by newspaper standards, and it’s almost entirely devoted to one-sided, sympathetic quotes from Shaw and her family and friends about what a horrible life of abuse and abandonment she has experienced. The Advertiser included a timeline of Shaw’s hard luck, and a collection of photos, laid out in a fake photo album format.

Only today does the paper get around the telling us how Shaw’s alleged identity thefts damaged the lives of the people whose names she is said to have stolen. Only today does it give us details into the unprecedented investigation that led to Shaw’s arrest.

The editorial interest in Shaw is obvious: Not only are the charges and proposed penalty firsts for Hawai‘i, but Shaw is, as the paper never lets us forget, a former beauty queen and mother of three. I don’t dispute that the irony is irresistible to storytellers—it fits the easy template of the rise-and-fall story, it feeds our appetite for stories about attractive people, especially women, who do ugly things.

But there are ways to tell such a story without coming across as a patsy. Yesterday’s story didn’t read like the paper was covering Shaw as a human-interest story—it reads as if the paper was covering for Shaw, going out of its way to elicit a sympathetic response. This effect was intensified by the specific editorial decision to tell us Shaw’s story first, in the prominent Sunday edition, while relegating the woes of her alleged victims to a shorter piece today.

This reminds me of the paper’s 2008 coverage of playwright Lisa Matsumoto’s drunk-driving death, which seemed intent on casting Matsumoto as the victim, rather than cause, of the events that ended her life. (More on that here.) I thought then that the paper’s sympathies were entirely misplaced, and the paper’s readers seem to share that sense—then and now, readers are slamming the paper for this coverage. I can hazard a guess at where their distaste is coming from:

The paper recently won awards from the Society of Professional Journalist for “Daysha’s Diary,” a series last year which similarly delved into the personal details of an abuse victim who’s life intersected with a horrible crime. It  featured family photos and excerpts from the 21-year-old’s personal diary. The difference between Shaw and Daysha? Daysha was the victim of the crime in question, murdered by her estranged boyfriend, not the alleged perpetrator.

The Advertiser’s editorial decisions in Shaw’s case tell us that humanizing Shaw’s alleged victims takes a backseat to what essentially amounts to beauty queen coverage. And that is all kinds of icky.

Posted on Monday, July 13, 2009 in Permalink

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