Decision-making in the news business regularly presents hard choices. Balancing the public’s needs and expectations with the legitimate privacy concerns of people in the news or on the periphery can make for some particularly difficult decisions.
News gathering by its very nature involves some degree of intrusiveness. That’s unavoidable. There will always be times when we report news that someone – or perhaps many people – wish would not have been reported, and that in some way aggravates or embarrasses the subjects of that reporting.
But most news people I know, and certainly the ones here at the Daily Journal, wrestle frequently with how to report the news in a way that is sensitive to the human pain that it may cause.
Recently, for example, there was a fatal shooting in Verona in which the police were involved. Our photographer was on the scene shortly afterward and took a number of photos. A sheet-covered body was there in open view for everyone to see, but we have a policy of not showing body pictures as a matter of taste, sensitivity and basic human decency, so no such photo made it in the paper or on our website.
We regularly take, write and edit our photos and stories on shootings, drownings, fatal accidents, natural disasters or other such tragedies with the intent of conveying the pertinent information as well as the emotional impact without being overly intrusive or exploitative.
We don’t report on suicides, unless they happen in public. We don’t identify rape victims.
All of these are examples of not publishing all the information or images we have in the interest of sparing people already traumatized additional pain.
When we do report on news that is tragic or that doesn’t reflect well on the people it’s about, we try to err on the side or fairness and restraint while remaining accurate and truthful.
Sometimes the pain is unavoidable, and the compelling need for the reporting is clearly evident. At other times the need isn’t as clear.
In a recent story, for example, many readers felt we crossed the line into insensitivity. We reported on an accident in which the driver of one car going the wrong way on U.S. 78 crashed into another car and was killed. The people in the other car, a mother and her three children, were injured, one of the children critically. Our story included information that the father of the children is in prison for a well-publicized crime.
Journalists are trained to report the information they know to be accurate and relevant to a story. The people who called and emailed us about this couldn’t see the relevance of the information about the father to the story of the accident, given that he had no involvement in it. And they thought it was insensitive to include it, especially given the family’s immediate concerns about a critically injured child and the general trauma of being involved in a fatal accident.
I can’t argue with that assessment. Sometimes journalistic instinct and training – publish all the information that you know to be true – should give way to a heightened sensitivity to the immediate circumstances and feelings of the people involved. And in this case, the reference to the family’s previous painful experience wasn’t necessary to the story.
This is a case where if we’d discussed it more, and more fully weighed the factors before publishing, we would have come to a different conclusion.
We hold ourselves to a high standard on matters of basic sensitivity and compassion, and we’re glad our readers do as well. We will make mistakes, but we’ll learn from them and continue to keep these imperatives before us.
As always, we appreciate our readers letting us know when we’ve hit or missed the mark.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.