A tragic flu death, and a smoking mother
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.”
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