Charity must beg questions

In response to concerns regarding Wednesday's front-page article about panhandler John Stevens, we'd like to explain our thinking behind featuring his story so prominently.

Stevens' panhandling at an Auburn shopping center sparked a flurry of calls to our newsroom. "What is this guy's story?" we were asked. Once, long before this week, a reporter asked Stevens to talk and he refused. Then, this week, he contacted us — and told us, in clear language, that we had been ignoring him — and we tried again.

So, as Stevens held a cardboard placard broadcasting his plight to passing cars and collecting cash, he told his story about being burned from his home, his fight to get disability checks, the challenges of his wife's bi-weekly income and his previous rousting from Topsham, Waterville and Augusta for panhandling. In Auburn, he said, the cops leave him alone.

That is Stevens' story, and it is tragic. He was turned homeless (though he lives in a motel now, to maintain a permanent residence) by a bizarre accident involving a benign appliance: an electric pencil sharpener. He apparently struggles with chronic pain and cannot find work. (He can, however, drive 60 miles daily to stand and ask for money.)

Just these details alone, however, are not the story of John Stevens. Journalism is not the staid retelling of one-sided tales, but the painting of the fullest possible picture so readers — to whom we are accountable — have every fact. There was more to Stevens than he was telling.

He is a registered sex offender and a convicted felon. His landlord in Augusta, whom we called to validate his tale, talked about Stevens' five-month turn as his tenant, and how he — to his landlord's knowledge — never held a job. The details of the fire were all true.

With this knowledge, we presented a portrait — warts and all — of Stevens. What is his story? Yes, his apartment building burned in March. Yes, he doesn't have work. What residents of the Twin Cities are seeing through their car windows is, genuinely, a person down on his luck.

Yet before giving him money, they deserve to know the whole story, from what is available from public records, those who knew him, and by asking tough questions he may not enjoy answering. Stevens sought publicity, as he has elsewhere. He called the newspaper.

A journalist responded.

If we had simply re-told Stevens' story, as he desired, we would have done our readers a disservice. A newspaper is not just a publicist for good causes; while we can amplify attention to worthwhile charities, our duty is asking questions and unearthing information that should be known.

Stevens is still free to ask for money. We have not denied him that right.

What we've done is ensure people know to whom their money is going.


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 's picture

Congratulations to the Sun

Congratulations to the Sun Journal for a good job at exposing this panhandler. Evidently he called them and wanted the public to feel sorry for him. But now he's mad because the SJ did their job. What this man did was dishonest in trying to get people to give him FREE money. Here in Oklahoma there are panhandlers everywhere! But when you see them get out of a fancy new van, or smoking cigarettes...then begging for money....What's wrong with that picture? When we offered them food or offered them work, they refused. When their signs say "Will Work, Please help" then they refuse to...That's dishonesty.

 's picture

Sounds like someone in the

Sounds like someone in the SJ management woke up after a ripper and said we need to get someone and this poor bloke got picked. Instead of reporting on how irrelevant our two Senators have been in the health care debate, and why, you chose to go after a homeless guy who is barely hanging on. The depths to which the SJ will sink knows no bounds.

Any problem that can't be solved with taxcuts, republicans pretend doesn't exist.

 's picture

Well, I thank the Sun

Well, I thank the Sun Journal for digging a little deeper. I know I wanted to know the back story to this guy. Do I wish him harm by wondering? No, but all those people who were digging in their pockets and their hearts to help him deserve to know the truth. My husband and I are dealing with his 40 hour job being dropped to 24, with 3 kids in college. We all have our struggles and most of the time we manage. The fact that he had his hand out and was taking money using a oldish story of his hard luck was wrong. Hopefully he finds a job (or accepts one, if that is true) and he can learn the pride of making it on your own. If he can't, their are legitimate ways of getting help, he wasn't using one.

ERNEST LABBE's picture

Tron I am a conservative

Tron I am a conservative bully. I want all public assistance to end for those to lazy to get off their butts and work. However if a person is working and being an upstanding citizen and misfortune hits them with a real injury, or disability then they should receive help, real help. Pay all their bills until they are able to return to work so they don't fall behind and never get out of the hole. However I am not saying to help this person for the rest of their lives. Only until the injury is over with. I did have and continue to have back problems for twenty years while I worked until I old enough to retire, I only expect others to do the same.


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