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Columbia Missourian

A moving story upholds Walter Williams' creed for good journalism

By Tom Warhover
April 3, 2009 | 8:23 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Within six months, Charlene Purvis lost her husband and her son to cancer. She and her daughter-in-law Stephanie are struggling to care for two young boys, a rundown trailer and a pile of medical and funeral bills.


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As one editor said Thursday, it’s hard not to be moved by their story.

It can happen, though.

Journalists who witness tragic circumstances over and over can become immune. It’s not that they don’t care; they just can’t deal with another tale of misery.

Reporter Christine Martinez found out how hard it can be when she chronicled Charlene Purvis and her family. She used still photography, audio and words. She wove them into a touching story of the family and of friends’ efforts to raise money.

Christine doesn’t have a Rolodex of experience in these stories. She’s a student-reporter who aspires to be a photojournalist. 

She saw the struggles of the Purvis family. At one point, she said, “I kind of felt like a jerk” as she put her eye to the camera while Charlene Purvis cried.

I’ve felt that way. I’ve had my notebook out as a father stood by the fire in which his son had died; as a teenager described her friend who didn’t survive a riding accident; and as a woman, bald from chemo, talked about dealing with a terminal condition.

I felt pretty low, even while promising myself that I would treat these sources as whole people and not just quotes. 

Christine didn’t want to profit from Charlene Purvis’ pain. She felt just the way you might — like an outsider peering in on someone’s private moment.

Still, she shot the photos.  She bore witness for us all.

I sat in on a gathering Wednesday night in which panelists discussed the merits and implications of the Journalist’s Creed, which was written by Walter Williams, founder of the Missouri School of Journalism and the Columbia Missourian. It has become the standard by which much of my profession is measured.

The speakers agreed that Williams would demand more civility — the stuff that’s less snarky, one said — while unflinching from critical stories. They cited Williams’ call for fairness and his assertion that “no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman.”

“How do you feel?” — an infamous device used by journalists looking for the quip, the sound bite, the tearful photo. “How do you feel?” — an enduring, beautiful question that searches for the center of the human experience. How the question is used depends entirely on the person doing the asking.

Christine upheld Williams’ creed by neither ignoring nor sensationalizing the family’s emotions. She succeeded in committing, in Williams’ words, “a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.”

Tom Warhover is the executive editor of the Missourian. E-mail:; Phone: 882-5734.