An Ethical Voice for the Public

4 Dec

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a journalist, its that regarding ethics, you should avoid reporting on something if you have a conflict-of-interest. That given, Rachel Dissell, a reporter for The Plain Dealer, told me of her experiences covering a beat that she had a conflict-of-interest in reporting on lead poisoning and lead paint issues in Cleveland, but did not let that translate into her reporting. Rachel Dissell covers justice issues, corruption and other human interest stories, she also won awards for her work on rape kit blacklogs.

“Unlike pretty much most of the stories that I cover, this one I learned more about when my son, Otto, who was a little baby at the time, ended up having an elevated level of lead in his blood after there were some renovations done on our house,” Dissell said. The hired renovation team did not follow proper procedures to keep the dust from spreading and there was old paint in the house. Baby Otto was exposed to the lead paint. When Dissell found out, she reached out to the city and they had a program where a group would come down and inspect and figure out how to fix it and the woman on the phone told her that she was the only inspector that they had left and that it would take between six and nine months for her to be able to come out to the house because of the demand of inspections.

“I did what any mom would do and I took out a loan, hired someone privately to help figure out the problem and to fix it, but I kept thinking, “What about all the people who can’t do that?””, Dissell said.

Rachel talked to Brie Zeltner, who’s the healthcare reporter at The Plain Dealer as well and she knew a lot about how lead poisoning could really harm your future, take I.Q. points off and make you impulsive or have ADD-like symptoms which impact poor children and minority children. The two made a plan to look at whether Cleveland was meeting its responsibilities to respond when kids were lead poisoned and they also focused on why the child gets poisoned first and then there is a response rather than trying to make the home safe ahead of time.

“I made sure from the beginning that I was very clear and transparent about how I learned about it [lead poisoning],” Dissell said. “It was a tough choice for me, because I was putting personal information out there about my child that could follow him. The greater good was for me to be transparent so that people knew that it existed, it had been dealt with and that yes, while I had personal experience, I wasn’t going to project my personal experience onto everybody else.”

Sometimes, the miracle of being a journalist is that personal experiences, and mainly bad ones, can result in newsworthy stories. Dissell was given the opportunity to raise awareness, without projecting her biases, but with real experiences and evidence to back her reporting.

“After we did our initial reporting,” Dissell began, “two of the top folks in the health department had to resign and the mayor was doing a tax increase campaign to increase income taxes and had to include in that new positions for that department to get more inspectors and investigators.”

Dissell has been reporting on it for two years now and the state has changed its oversight of all of the cities in the state. The cities had to hire new public health lead inspectors and landlords previously were not placarding homes with warning signs, but now they are legally bound to do that. This year for the first time, the city of Cleveland has started some inspections that happen routinely in rental homes that they haven’t been doing before. “There was a councilman who worked with the Legal Aid Society to write some new legislation that will make it mandatory for homes to be lead-safe if they were rentals and if they were old. That legislation hasn’t passed yet, its still pending, but they’ll take it up again in January. But before we started our project, if you were a parent and you wanted to rent a house, there was no way to look up if it was a lead hazard or not. Now, you can look that up on the city’s website,” Dissell explained.

In the realm of ethics, Rachel Dissell is a great example of using first-hand experience to do great investigative journalism. She spent hours researching and contacting people to understand nuances and process of lead safety laws. She used good sources including first-hand accounts from youths even, but did not disclose any personal information as they were minors, another code of ethics journalists must follow.

“You should never hesitate to hold the government accountable. That’s the job that we as journalists have. That’s the job the public wants us to have,” Dissell added. In a world of corrupt government, we need children to make a promising future and children cannot reach their full potentials with lead poisoning their bodies. Journalists must face the impossible task to point out flaws in the system, but also come up with solutions to these problems and Dissell is a great example of an ethically-sound investigative journalist.

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