Hunger in Los Angeles
I was a witness to a crime, albeit a minor one. What began as a reporting project about food insecurity instantly turned into an ethical swamp. I approached Danielle on the streets and asked to interview her when she asked me to accompany her into a grocery store. Moments later, I saw her put a Twinkie in her bag. That was just the start.
Danielle gave me her full name. Should I use it and expose her to risk or stick to just Danielle?
Today, there are several major issues plaguing the United States: unemployment, access to healthcare and poverty among many others. In Los Angeles, homelessness and hunger reign supreme. Sixteen percent of Angelinos, 1.4 million people, do not know where their next meal will come from every day, according to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. In 2016, there were 46,874 homeless people in LA County, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services. In reporting the radio story posted above, I encountered both.
I met Danielle on a Tuesday walking down a busy street just off the University of Southern California’s campus, when I saw six officers from USC’s Department of Public Service (DPS) standing around her. They watched as she picked her life belongings off a bench and put them in an oversized garbage bag the officers supplied. I stood and watched for nearly 10 minutes as she plucked item after item off the bench and sidewalk, smelling them, mulling over whether the torn SpongeBob umbrella she wielded belonged in the trash or her trash bag. Once she made her decisions, she thanked the officers and crossed the street. I followed and approached Danielle, identifying myself as a journalism student. She agreed to answer a few questions. But first, she wanted a soda.
We made small talk on the way; she told me she was a brain surgeon that practiced in San Francisco and England while her tattooed hands shifted between the trash bag and a tattered duffle bag. Then we entered the store.
Suddenly Danielle started picking up Twinkies and smelling the plastic wrappers, talking about how “everything is so chemicalized, so nucleuotized,” and shoved the items, one after the next, into her duffle bag. Next came the Nestle Toll House Cookie Dough. I watched as she alternated between rolls of chocolate chip to pre-cut squares of white chip macadamia nut in an organized system: lift, smell, stuff. Four packages in total. I was uncomfortable. I asked if I could wait for her outside, but she insisted I stay as I saw the store’s security guard was making her way to the aisle.
We cut from aisle to aisle looking for soda. Eventually she found a two-liter bottle of Big Red and with that, Danielle was set. We were now now about 10 minutes into the store excursion, and the security guard looked ready to pounce, fully knowing of the food in the bag. At that moment, whether by design or pure luck, Danielle pulled a dollar out of her pocket and the security guard came to a halt, probably pondering the same thing I was — was Danielle actually about to pay for these items?
On the way to the register, she snagged a bottle of maple syrup and tucked it under her arm. Expecting the game of cat-and-mouse to finally come to a close, I backed away and watched as Danielle stood second in line with the guard just behind her. With the trash and duffle bags hidden from the cashier’s sight, Danielle placed the Big Red and syrup on the belt followed by the one dollar bill and a sprinkling of change. Realizing her shortage of cash, she tossed the syrup on top of the duffle, still in plain sight to all but the cashier, prompting the guard to question if she planned on paying for it. Danielle said yes.
The cashier rang up the Big Red — $1.62. Danielle had closer to $1.40. The guard told the cashier about the syrup and she questioned Danielle about it. Danielle, agitated, shoved the bottle away, saying she no longer wanted it. The cashier allowed Danielle to have the Big Red even though she was a few cents short. She walked out of the store, bags in-hand, head held high, without the guard following. To my astonishment, no alarms went off. I hustled to catch up as she said, “we can do the interview right here next door.”
We sat in a Taco Bell for nearly 20 minutes, me asking questions about being hungry and living on the streets, her giving half quality responses mixed with mindless jumble. She spoke of her recent travel through space, living on Mars and her son Valdek, the king of heaven. Despite a lot of clearly insane information, it was evident this woman knew the strife of living with hunger on the streets. I asked if she thought it was ever necessary to steal food.
“Yeah I do. I say steal. If you are starving… If you go into the store and you see food, I say take it,” Danielle said. “Anything else, don’t take it, unless it’s for your children. That’s different.”
When I submitted my draft for this radio story, I included her full name. I figured as a journalist if she was willing to provide me with her name and quotes about what she did, I should publish it, regardless of the consequences. My journalism professor immediately identified the ethical dilemma and insisted I use only her first name. She consulted another professor, who presented an argument I did not consider.
“Sometimes journalists are trying to expose wrongdoing and prompt legal action, but that wasn’t the intent here,” the professor said. “By witnessing this act and then reporting on it, we’d essentially be doing police work. Was it wrong what Danielle did? Yes. Is it our job to expose that?”
I mulled on that question for a while.
Earlier in my reporting, I talked with Frank Tamborello, the director of Hunger Action Los Angeles, who told me hunger is not the actual problem, but a symptom of the overarching epidemic which is poverty. This was the story. That is, until I met Danielle. She embodied everything this story was about. She is the 16 percent, the one out of six people in California that struggles with hunger. She is what makes Los Angeles one of the most troublesome cities and counties in the country.
I consulted Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, an international journalism teaching organization, to help me with this conundrum.
“While I tend toward fully reporting her name I am not bothered much by using first name with disclosure of why,” Tompkins said in an email. “The reason for the story is not to alert the world to this woman, it is to alert the world to her plight.”
With the advice of Tompkins, my professors and a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that as a journalist, my duty is to tell a story — hopefully one that prompts action toward a potential injustice, but not to get caught up on a detail that will prevent me from sharing the overarching message. I did not want to omit Danielle’s name, but I also didn’t want to open either of us up to legal repercussions.
At a time when Danielle had one of her worst moments, it was one of my luckiest. I spent 40 minutes witnessing first-hand the food insecurity that more than a million people face in this small area alone each day and I still struggled with it. I saw it transform from a woman on a bench to a stolen Twinkie to mental instability in mere moments.
I thought I had an ethical decision on my hands in whether or not to use Danielle’s full name, but at the end of the day, the only ethical dilemma was whether or not something is to be done about food insecurity.