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A tragic flu death, and a smoking mother

By Andy Alexander

On Sunday, The Post published the heartbreaking story of 6-year-old Heaven Skyler Wilson, an otherwise healthy child who suddenly took ill and died after contracting the H1N1 flu strain. But amid an outpouring of sympathy, many readers raised questions about the photo of Heaven’s mother that was featured prominently with the newspaper version of the piece. The photo, which dominated the front page of the newspaper's Metro section (but was not associated with the article online), shows 27-year-old Sara Wilson dragging on a cigarette as she sits next to a makeshift shrine to Heaven in the bedroom of her trailer home in Jetersville, near Richmond.

Post reporter Brigid Schulte, who wrote the story, said she was soon “flooded” with e-mails. Many expressed compassion and asked how they might help Wilson, who is out of work and cannot afford an urn for her daughter’s remains.

But many others – in e-mails to Schulte, to me and in online comments -- wondered about the smoking and whether The Post had cast Wilson in an unfair light.

One reader who called me accused The Post of intentionally choosing an unflattering photo of Wilson to make her look like “trailer trash.”

Lori Flanagan, who lives in the small Fauquier County community of Broad Run, noted the flu-related respiratory complications in Heaven’s death and wondered if “preexisting conditions” might have been a cause. “In the photo of Heaven’s mom, who [as the last paragraph of the story noted] is currently pregnant, we see she is smoking a cigarette in the house,” Flanagan e-mailed. “A young child living in the house of a woman who smokes is dead of a lung problem and it’s a mystery?!!!”

Beverly Beuster, a mother of two who lives in Fairfax City, also wondered about whether Heaven was affected by smoke. “I doubt that (a child) who lives with secondhand smoke could be considered entirely healthy,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Schulte’s story focused heavily on the terrifying nature of the current strain of H1N1 flu, which is especially affecting the very young. She wrote that “it is the seemingly random deaths of healthy, young people such as Heaven that are driving much of the fear around swine flu.” Some readers wondered why the story didn’t explore whether cigarette smoke might have contributed to Heaven’s death.

Schulte explained that she didn’t know Wilson smoked until she met her for the first time on the Thursday, Nov. 19. The deadline for her story was the following day, making it difficult to explore the issue in depth with doctors. And besides, they had given no indication that secondhand smoke might be a contributing factor as they struggled for two weeks to keep Heaven alive before the decision was made to disconnect her respirator. She died minutes later.

So if smoking wasn’t central to the story, was it proper for The Post to run such a large photo of Sara Wilson with a cigarette?

Schulte and Robert Miller, the assistant picture editor who helped select the photo, said it was about limited options and depicting reality.

Schulte said that shortly after she and a freelance photographer arrived at Wilson’s home, Wilson began smoking “continuously, one cigarette after another.” The photographer “didn’t pick the one moment when she was smoking. She constantly smoked. There was no other option.”

“If we were to have depicted her in any other way, we would have been untruthful to what we saw,” she said.

Miller showed me the range of about a dozen photos that were considered for publication. Most showed Wilson smoking. One taken outside the trailer, showing Heaven’s bicycle in the foreground and her mother barely visible in the distance, was selected to run with the continuation of the story inside the Metro section. And a small photo of Heaven accompanied the story on the section front. It had been raining heavily when Schulte and the photographer visited Wilson, limiting opportunities for outside photos.

In most of the photos, Wilson “had a cigarette in her hand,” Miller said. “I’m not sure we could have gotten around that. “ In addition, he said, the photo of Wilson smoking near the makeshift shrine, with a photo of Heaven clearly visible, “says a lot about her mood.” He described it as a “storytelling” photo.

Schulte said Wilson told her that she had started smoking more heavily after her daughter’s death as a way to control stress. It concerned Schulte, who waited until after the interview to raise it.

Outside the trailer, Schulte said, she gently placed her hands on Wilson’s shoulders and said: “You have to find a different way to deal with your stress. This is not good for your (unborn) baby.” She said Wilson responded: “I know, I know, I know.”

Schulte, the mother of two pre-teens (one with asthma), said she purposely waited until the end of the interview to raise the matter.

“It’s not my job as a reporter to tell her to quit,” she told me. “But when my job as a reporter was over, as a human being, I tried to tell her to stop.”

By Andy Alexander  | November 25, 2009; 10:52 AM ET
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Your job always comes first.

Ask any lawyer and or/ pol.

Posted by: adamnescot1 | November 25, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

"The photographer “didn’t pick the one moment when she was smoking. She constantly smoked. There was no other option."

Horse carp.

There wasn't one moment when Ms. Wilson wasn't puffing on a cigarette?


Posted by: spamsux1 | November 25, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

There is another cause of flu symptoms: exposure to glycol ether. More serious by far than second hand smoke. What is blamed on a virus may more likely be exposure to these chemicals. Blood in urine? ANEMIA?

Posted by: valdez1 | November 26, 2009 3:59 AM | Report abuse

Why is the only reference to smoking in the photograph? Why is there no reference to smoking in the main body of the story if it is prominently featured in the accompanying photograph?

How hard is it for a reporter to pick up the phone (or go to a colleague with connections) and contact the CDC or the National Institutes or even her physician and get a comment from a doctor on smoking, flu in general and H1N1 flu in particular?

This is left unconsidered and unanswered, and of course with Mr. Alexander unthought and unquestioned.

The story clearly refers to the woman's pregnancy. It seems that a simple reference in the story about smoking could have enlightened readers. For example, "Heaven's mother chain smokes due to the stress of her loss. Pregnant, she knows of and agonizes over the potential harm to her unborn child."

There in plain sentences a reporter can explain the "truth" in a way the conveys the tragedy of the loss to the reader in a sympathetic way.

In the end Mr. Alexander explains away poor reporting and editing due to deadlines. How is there a deadline on a feature story like this? Was the Post about to be scooped on the Heaven story? Was the story about to become stale because H1N1 is going away? Or did the post have column inches to fill and the story was needed for that?

The Washington Post is the General Motors of newspapers, publishing unfinished and incomplete stories and excusing its failures due to costs of production and timeliness.

Posted by: krush01 | November 26, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

The photog could have asked her to put down the cigarette for a shot or two, but I can see the point about pics of her smoking being an accurate portrayal of her life and style.

But, that aside, I'd like both commenters and Post writers to be careful about the phrase "trailer trash." I believe the correct 21st century designation is "manufactured housing recyclables." As an alternative, the Post could start referring to people who don't live in mobile homes as, variously, "apartment complex trash," "McMansion trash," "condo trash," and so on.

FYI, Fair Lane Acres, the resident-owned Florida mobile home community where I live, has a rigorous screening policy. Trashy people who want to live here are uniformly rejected. Many of them end up living in a depressed, mostly rental, area South of us known colloquially as "duplex city."

Despite these facts, neither the Post nor our local chain-owned newspaperlets ever talk about "duplex trash," as they often should when reporting crime news.

Posted by: roblimo | November 26, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

“It’s not my job as a reporter to tell her to quit,” she told me. “But when my job as a reporter was over, as a human being, I tried to tell her to stop.”

As long as you were in this woman's home, you were a reporter. It's none of your stinking business to tell her to stop. The Nanny WaPo needs to back off.

As for not having another suitable photo... Bull!

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | November 26, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Pregnant and a chain smoker...perfect poster child for Obama care and the ideal democrat voter. Can't wait for my hard earned money to be stolen to pay for ALL her needs. Great.

Posted by: 65apr | November 28, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

The editorial page has a story today about the need for civility in public discourse and the immense danger of the demonization of those who hold different opinions.

It's interesting that comments about a non-political story generates anti-Obama comments. It seems that Obama hatred is the lens through which some people see the entire world.

The mother's smoking IS relevant to this story. The point is made that the child was healthy with no identified pre-existing conditions. That fact can be terrifying to other parents. They need to know that there was a risk factor in the child's home that may have contributed to her death.

As for the comment: "It's none of your stinking business to tell her to stop. The Nanny WaPo needs to back off," I would venture a guess that this individual would consider it his or her business if the woman chose to have an abortion. Yet the writer thinks it is wrong for another person to even gently address the fact that she is harming her unborn child. There is no controversy about the negative effects of smoking during pregnancy.

Those on the right have some serious double standards.

Posted by: colton | November 30, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

I'm more disturbed by the fact that she is smoking while pregnant.

Posted by: TheProFromDover | November 30, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

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