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Saving babies is all in a day’s work at WPMI

Jul 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Reporter Jodi Brooks covered a high-profile murder trial during her first week on the job in 1998 at WPMI-TV, Mobile, Ala., where a young mother was prosecuted for drowning her newborn baby in a toilet. The baby’s mother Mitzi Variali and Mitzi’s mother Diane were found guilty of murder and each sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Ms. Brooks began a new job as a general assignment reporter at WEWS-TV, Cleveland, on June 25, but she left an indelible mark on Mobile and the state of Alabama. After covering the Variali murder case, Ms. Brooks was inspired to set up a program called A Secret Safe Place for Newborns. It allows mothers to hand over their babies to hospitals for adoption.
If such a program were developed, Ms. Brooks asked Mobile District Attorney John Tyson Jr., would his office continue to prosecute mothers who abandoned their infants? He said no, but he told Ms. Brooks she would have to get the hospitals to be part of the program.
“This kind of story-dead babies in dumpsters, dead babies in canals, dead babies in the woods-is a theme in my career,” Ms. Brooks said. “The impetus approaching Tyson was `Enough is enough.’ I called all the area hospitals and I pitched the idea. Let’s develop this program for women who are pregnant, desperate and in denial.”
With the support of WPMI, the program was launched at the end of 1998 and so far has saved 13 babies in the state of Alabama, nine of which were in the Mobile market.
“Any mother pregnant who doesn’t want her baby can go to any nearby hospital emergency room and hand the baby over to a doctor or nurse,” Ms. Brooks said. “The baby becomes custody of the state and is placed at a home. It’s an at-risk adoption. The mother can come back up to 60 days later to change her mind, which has happened twice already.”
WPMI General Manager Sharon Moloney said the station ran public service announcements and did news pieces on the program. “From the station’s perspective, even the clients have embraced the program, because it’s really saved lives,” Ms. Moloney said. “If there is a charity event for the program, some advertisers donate money. It’s a terrific program; it has been very, very successful for our market, and I would love it if it became a national program, because I believe it’s a national problem. The more exposure it gets, the more successful the program becomes.”
Mr. Tyson told Electronic Media that while the Mobile district attorney’s office was the first in the country to authorize the program, the concept has now become law in as many as 28 states. It allows mothers to give their newborns to area hospitals anonymously-and without being prosecuted. He said seven babies have been saved in New York, three in New Jersey and four in California.
“I can’t say enough about the generosity of the local station to give us news stories, to give us PSAs, to give us their resources to help publicize this program,” Mr. Tyson said. “Frankly, it is one of the critical differences that puts us over the top. It is one thing to start a program and quite another to implement. One of the implementation puzzles is publicizing the program, and WPMI has done a magnificent job on that.
According to Mr. Tyson, since the program was launched at the end of 1998, there hasn’t been an abandonment death in the market. Last year, legislation named after the reporter-the Jodi Brooks Law-expanded the program across the entire state.
Amid the success, however, some critics say Ms. Brooks has crossed the line into the realm of advocacy journalism. But Ms. Brooks has no regrets.
“It is in our interest as journalists to help our community,” Ms. Brooks said. “ I call it `civic journalism.”’
Joe Saltzman, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California, said creating such a program does not cross the line into advocacy journalism.
“That kind of journalism is one of the oldest forms of journalism-trying to come up with solutions to social questions,” Mr. Saltzman said. “Once the station takes it over, it becomes a social project the station takes on. Newspapers have been advocates of charities that they’ve sponsored since the turn of the century.”
“What I think is so great is how my television station has really been so committed to such an important project,” Ms. Brooks said. “None of this would have ever happened if I went to my general manager and she said `No, don’t do this.’ She gave me the creative freedom to explore the unknown possibilities.”