When the Press Covers Sex Cases
Critics say the media may have jumped to conclusions about the Margaret Bean-Bayog case
BOSTON — WHEN the press deals with allegations of sexual misconduct, especially those involving a possible breach of professional ethics, it faces a challenge: providing balanced coverage of a news story that informs without feeding prurient interests. Careers can be ruined by the publicity, even if allegations later prove false.
These challenges are apparent in the coverage of psychiatrist Margaret Bean-Bayog's relationship with former patient Paul Lozano, a Harvard Medical School student who killed himself in April 1991, nearly 10 months after she ended therapy with him. The Lozano family subsequently filed a malpractive suit, alleging that Dr. Bean-Bayog drew her patient into a sexual relationship and a state of dependency.
Last month, Bean-Bayog gave up her medical license to avoid a state medical board hearing, which was to be televised nationally. The move permanently bars her from prescribing medicine, although she may work as a therapist.
The case received intense media attention by the national press, including Time and Newsweek magazines, with heavy day-to-day coverage by the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. ABC and NBC are making television movies about the case, and at least two books are planned.
While psychiatrists are divided over whether Bean-Bayog's unconventional methods to help treat Lozano's depression were appropriate, questions linger as to whether the case was fairly portrayed in the media.
Some critics say news coverage in the first few weeks of the case was one-sided. They say reporters failed to thoroughly analyze the thousands of pages of personal medical documents used as evidence against Bean-Bayog. Patient's family's role
The documents, stolen from Bean-Bayog's office by the patient himself, were released by Lozano family attorney Andrew Meyer. Written by Bean-Bayog, many of the notes detailed erotic fantasies involving the patient.
In the excitement of a tantalizing front-page story, reporters did not thoroughly consider both sides of the issue, says Ellen Hume, a media analyst with the Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University.
"Readers were led to believe from the beginning that Dr. Bean-Bayog was guilty," Ms. Hume says. "I think that with subsequent coverage, one may have a different interpretation of her notes than the one initially given to us by the journalists. We still don't know what the facts are in this case. But Dr. Bean-Bayog has been thoroughly convicted from Day 1 by the press coverage."
The case drew enormous media interest because it featured an unusual role reversal: A woman psychiatrist, instead of a man, is accused of having a sexual relationship with her patient.
Bean-Bayog, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, had an excellent professional reputation, according to colleagues. She consistently denies having had any sexual relationship with Lozano. She also maintains that her patient was a troubled young man who may have been sexually abused as a child, an allegation his family denies.
The stolen office notes were used as tools during therapy sessions, she says. Other personal notes included her own sexual fantasies about the patient. These accounts, she says, were written as a way to identify her feelings so she would not act on them.
Stories about the case failed to explore the many complexities involved, says Thomas Cottle, a clinical psychologist who teaches adolescent development at Boston University's School of Education. "People got very excited with the story and were leaping to all sorts of conclusions," he says.
The easily accessible medical documents helped perpetuate those often one-sided conclusions, critics say.
"Were they her actions or were they actions projected on her that she was noting? These kinds of things have not been resolved by the experts, and yet the press portrayed them from the beginning only one way," Hume says.
Caryl Rivers, journalism professor at Boston University agrees: "The thing that really put the icing on the cake was the release of the letters that she wrote. The coverage of that early on was very sensational.... Here's a woman who got utterly trashed in the media before saner heads - or other editors or responsible journalists - started to say, `Wait a minute, there is something else to this story."'
Benjamin Bradlee, assistant managing editor at the Boston Globe, concedes that the first few stories of the Globe's coverage may have relied on the Lozano family's interpretation of the case.
"The attorney for the Lozano family was making the charge.... And the court documents that were filed, thousands of pages, were documents that reflected primarily the interst of the Lozano family.
"With those the only documents to be analyzed, it was inevitable that the first two or three days of stories were perhaps dominated by the Lozano version," Mr. Bradlee says.
Some critics say the media focused on Bean-Bayog because she is a woman. Stories about male therapists having sexual relationships with female patients are routinely covered in the news but with less scrutiny than the Bean-Bayog case, they argue.
"Male psychiatrists don't get the same attention, so I think it's kind of a double standard," Dr. Cottle says. Amount of coverage faulted
Other critics fault the sheer volume of local newspaper coverage.
"There were a lot of good aspects of the coverage, but again I think it was overkill. There were just so many stories, and a lot of material became repetitious," says Bernice Buresh, director of the Women, Press, and Politics Project in Cambridge, Mass. Day after day stories would appear in the paper "using any kind of weak new angle to completely get into a whole recapitulation of the details," she says.
Use of photographs in both the broadcast and print media were sensational, she says. One photo of Bean-Bayog showed her reclining on a chair cuddling a stuffed animal. The photo appeared in Time magazine along with the headline "Did His Doctor Love Him to Death?"
"The photos of her have uniformly cast her in a negative way," says Ms. Buresh.
Cottle says that because the story unraveled so quickly, it is understandable that the media may have jumped to conclusions.
"You're stuck with depositions, psychiatrists' records, and a very, very angry and upset family," he says."The media is at a tremendous disadvantage; it can't get at the truth, and it can't get corroborating evidence."
"I really sense that reporters were trying and they were up against an impossible burden," he says. "But I do think that from time to time there was writing that slipped in making it really very sensational."