THE GREAT OBLIGATION

In 1981 I interviewed a couple named Stanley and Julie Patz. Perhaps the last name rings a bell. Twenty-five years ago, their 6-year-old son, Etan, left his family's lower Manhattan loft for the schoolbus stop two blocks away and vanished. This was before pictures on milk cartons, or Amber Alerts, or even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which Etan's disappearance helped create. Stan Patz is a photographer, and a picture he had taken of his son, bright eyes, long bangs, became iconic overnight. Etan Patz: the most famous missing child since the Lindbergh baby.

"We're not interested in publicity anymore," Stan Patz said when I called.

He didn't remember the story I had done; I've never forgotten it. The couple's loss, their need, their grief, made me feel that I had to lift the level of my game to meet the level of their bereavement. This was impossible, but I was moved to try.

I have often thought about the effect the Patzes had on me as some reporters have brought disgrace upon the profession. And it has made me wonder whether good journalists always have that moment in their background, the moment that merges humanity and story in an indelible way. Or the opposite: are the frauds always of character, not craft? Skimming Jayson Blair's sloppy and unrepentant book about his confabulations at The New York Times, I sensed no concern for the people he covered. His emphasis was on quantity, how many stories he could shoehorn into the shortest span of days. The individuals in his stories were never more than the means to a careerist end.

How else to explain the actions of Jack Kelley, the USA Today star reporter who resigned amid an investigation that concluded he had invented significant parts of at least eight articles? One of his suspect stories--an account of an escape from Cuba in a small boat under a crescent moon that was not out on the night in question amid a storm that never occurred--was illustrated with a photo Kelley had taken of a woman he called Yacqueline. (The names of the alleged human beings changed several times as Kelley worked on his draft.) In his account, Yacqueline and her young son tragically drowned. In real life, the woman in the photograph is alive and living in the United States, a legal immigrant. No boat, no moon. Not quite so page one, that.

Reporters are often asked about their obligation to readers, but perhaps the most important obligation is the one we owe the subjects of our stories, whose lives are limned by our words, for better or for worse. David Halberstam, the best-selling author who won a Pulitzer telling the truth about Vietnam, says it was writing obituaries as a young man at the Nashville Tennessean that made this clear to him. "For most people it was the one time they got their name in print," he recalled. "If you got something wrong you could cause enormous pain to ordinary people."

Tom Brokaw, the NBC anchorman, remembers a young black woman who decided to march in the streets of Americus, Ga., during dangerous racial unrest there. "I'm often asked to name my most memorable interview," Brokaw says, "and I suppose most people think I'll say Dr. Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy or Gorbachev or Mandela or Margaret Thatcher or some other big name. But honestly, I always bring up that young woman. I was just 25 at the time and she taught me so much that night."

Perhaps that sort of learning curve is harder now. Ordinary people too often are turned into celebrities, so that Jessica Lynch, whose story was one of those Blair phonied up, went from a soldier from West Virginia to a national figure faster than you could say "made-for-TV movie." The Patzes predate the strafe heartbreaker, those human-interest stories transmuted into all-pathos-all-the-time, their protagonists hurtling from one news magazine to another until they seem less like people and more like talking heads. And talking heads never inspire compassion.

All this makes you wonder if journalism schools should teach not just accuracy, but empathy. But the truth is, you really get that by covering stories, not studying them, by imagining yourself in the place of the people you interview. All these years later, and I still apologized to Stan for talking about his son in the past tense. "I got over that a long time ago," he said. "He's gone."

He's not looking for publicity anymore. His son has been declared legally dead by the courts; Stan Patz believes Etan was murdered by a convicted child molester now in jail in Pennsylvania. Still there's a pad by the phone for taking notes when someone calls, most recently a woman who believes her former husband is Etan. Still he clips the stories out of habit. The original impulse is gone: "To create a history for Etan." If you're a reporter I leave you with that image for those times when you think what you do is fleeting. The closest thing this man has to the body of his son is the body of your work. If that doesn't make you want to do better, find another job.