What She DidnWhat She Didn't Tell Us

In an environment where journalists must produce stories faster than ever before, competing with more news outlets on more platforms than ever before, news stories can quickly become legends and real people can quickly become heroes. Take this one: A woman with a troubled past is held hostage by a suspected murderer, the object of a massive manhunt after a recent killing spree and escape. She reads him passages from a book about faith and shares the details of her rocky past, developing a connection that eventually motivates him to release her unharmed and surrender. She contacts police and he is arrested and charged with murder.

That is Ashley Smith's story. She is the Georgia woman who was held hostage by alleged courthouse shooter Brian Nichols back in March, who said that reading passages from Rick Warren's "A Purpose Driven Life" and discussing her life and past with Nichols was the reason that he released her unharmed.

Smith has published a book of her own, "Unlikely Angel." The Associated Press reports that in the book, she says that she provided Nichols with crystal meth during the ordeal, which she was addicted to at the time, but has since quit. She didn't immediately reveal this to police, but admitted it during interviews with investigators months later. The police are not pressing charges.

Smith was the subject of countless television news interviews immediately following her ordeal and in the weeks after, during which this piece of information was also never revealed, although her past struggles with drug problems were public. The whole story revolved around the utterly fascinating conclusion that Smith was able to emotionally connect with her captor, who was suspected of quadruple homicide, so much that it moved him to release her. That seemed to be the whole story at the time.

Smith described her connection with Nichols during an interview with anchor Harry Smith on "The Early Show" shortly after the incident (watch the full interview ):
SMITH: Right. And finally, what was the message you told him about your daughter that you think probably actually eventually just touched his heart?

Ms. SMITH: Just that if he didn't let me see her or if he didn't let me go then I wouldn't--if he didn't let me go free, that she would not have a mother anymore or a father.

SMITH: It's an extraordinary story.

Ms. SMITH: And looking at his--looking at her pictures, he had to have a heart.

Maybe Nichols let her go because of what she said about her daughter. Maybe he let her go because of what she read from Warren's book. Maybe he let her go because she gave him crystal meth. We'll likely never know the answer with certainty.

And the recent news that Smith was addicted to crystal meth or that she provided Nichols with the drug may not really have any bearing on whether or not she can be considered a hero – the end result was that she made it out of a desperate situation with a potentially violent man unharmed and reported his whereabouts to police. That isn't really the question for journalists.

The question is, when presented with stories like this that are so clearly engaging, when the characters fit so perfectly into the profiles that make a story interesting -- or inspiring -- do reporters stop asking the important questions, leaving potentially important details behind? If a reporter had somehow uncovered Smith's recent disclosure back in March, would that have changed the story's angle? Probably. Smith's account might have been discredited, or at least questioned more than it was at the time. She might have never had that book deal.

Many stories that seem simple at first almost always end up being far more complicated. What seems like a perfect story is likely full of all kinds of messy complications that don't fit in with the narrative, because it's not just a story – it is real life.

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