Hitting the city's drugs-and-sex problem head-on

The Baltimore Sun

Last Sunday, Sun readers were greeted by a close-up, front-page photo of 45-year-old Sharon Williams - whose face has been ravaged by years of addiction to cocaine and heroin and life as a prostitute. The photo accompanied the first of a two-part series on HIV-infected women in Baltimore who trade sex for drugs - a growing problem that helps explain why Baltimore has the second-highest rate of AIDS diagnoses among U.S. cities.

The newspaper devoted significant resources to examining this disturbing social problem at a time when the news media, including The Sun, have been criticized for not doing enough reporting on such troubling issues. In my view, this outstanding piece of journalism showed how effective a metropolitan newspaper can be when it makes a commitment to confront these kinds of problems head-on.

The series, reported and written by Jonathan Bor and photographed by Kim Hairston, was challenging to produce and was demanding for readers to digest. Because of its devastating details and the bleak circumstances of the women trapped by their addiction, the stories and photos were provocative.

Still, many Sun subscribers read the articles, examined the photos and praised Bor and Hairston's work.

Said Dr. William Blattner, AIDS epidemiologist at the University of Maryland Institute of Human Virology: "This is one of the most moving pieces of journalism that I have read. Congratulations on sharing the lives of these women. You have placed a human face on what truly is a universal and worldwide problem. I hope your series gets the recognition that it deserves."

Lindsay Beane said: "Thank you for such an important article on HIV and prostitution. It was very well crafted, and gave a very sensitive description of the individuals profiled. The photographs were also very helpful in creating a more sensitive depiction of the HIV epidemic."

The project sprang from articles in The Sun last year that reported high AIDS rates in certain parts of the city. Editor Tim Franklin, in part responding to suggestions from community leaders, assigned veteran medical reporter Bor to explore the underlying causes. At that point, the newspaper knew the "what" but did not know the "why." That would require months of hard reporting.

Bor began in the Sandtown-Winchester area, where the percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS is 15 times the national average. The sex-for-drugs trade emerged in conversations with a range of people, from men who had dealt drugs to neighborhood activists. "This theme just kept coming up," Bor said.

As he moved to focus on the women who sell sex, Bor developed the best sources in an adjacent and also hard-hit part of the west side of the city. Over the months, he and photographer Hairston got to know several of the women as well as the women's nomadic lifestyles permitted. The journalists also took great care not to invade the women's privacy or through their presence put them at risk.

Said Bor: "In interview after interview, people mentioned that drug addicts were turning tricks to support their addictions and that many had the HIV infection. It was months before I decided to make this the focus of my story. It was really the cumulative evidence presented by numerous people in the community that pointed me in this direction."

A key point in the reporting was connecting with YANA, a drop-in center on West Pratt Street. Said Bor: "Sidney Ford, who runs the center, gave me tremendous access and introduced me to many of the women who dropped in. As she grew to trust Kim and me, she allowed us to show up whenever we liked and chat with clients as long as we followed various protocols to respect confidentiality at the center."

Bor noted that getting the women to trust him was not the most significant obstacle. "The far bigger obstacle was logistics: finding them on a consistent basis and getting sufficient time with them to develop a line of questioning. On many occasions, it was impossible to have more than 10 or 15 minutes with them before their drug cravings took over, and they bolted."

The series represents a largely untold aspect of the AIDS epidemic. During his more than 20 years of covering AIDS, Bor has heard public health officials describe such women as "commercial sex workers" - a description he feels implies that the women have simply chosen a lifestyle. "I also realized that the news media had failed to explore this risk group," Bor said. "To me, the series served a dual purpose: pointing out the large role that the sale of sex for drugs was playing in the AIDS epidemic while also giving voice to an abused and unseen population."

Photographer Hairston was careful during her time with Williams to avoid taking pictures of her on the streets. Hairston eventually photographed Williams using drugs in her "abandominium" - the abandoned house where she stores her possessions.

Hairston remembered feeling a constant sense of danger but said: "She trusted me; I had to also trust her."

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