Reports of tragedy can be vivid, accurate and still show sensitivity

A news outlet confronts many conflicting demands when it comes to reporting sensational news. Some of them have to do with sensitivity. Some with service. Some with audience appeal. Some with raw competition. All have come into play in various ways this week. You may be interested in the Daily Herald’s approach, a policy that puts premiums on sensitivity and reliability.

Regarding the former, I commend you to a Straight From The Source essay we published Sept. 17, two weeks before Sunday’s tragedy in Las Vegas. The essay was written by Kathleen Larimer of Crystal Lake, whose son was killed in a 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. The article laid out policies of restraint which Larimer and other families of victims are urging upon news media that report on such crimes. She reiterated some of those thoughts in an interview that Deputy Managing Editor Jim Davis reported in Tuesday’s editions.

While the opinions expressed by writers of our Straight From The Source essays don’t necessarily reflect our own and we might have some minor differences with Larimer’s proposals, her outline largely reflects policies to which we strive to adhere, specifically out of concerns for the victims’ survivors in such cases and to avoid the possibility of encouraging publicity seekers or mentally unstable copy cats. We are careful to limit specifically naming the perpetrators, identifying them by name no more than once in a given story and never in a headline. In subsequent coverage, we limit use of their names as much as possible, avoiding it entirely if circumstances allow. We publish their pictures in print no more than once, ever – and then it is small and on an inside page. Online, the picture is used only with non-lead articles that don’t appear dominant on the home page. Our writers and editors focus coverage on the response to such crises and the impact on the victims, the people directly involved and their families. We are wary of reporting allegations or information provided by unnamed or unreliable sources.

In the confusion of reporting breaking stories, following rapidly changing developments requires nimble judgment. This makes adhering strictly to any policy complicated. People want information, they want it immediately and it’s our mission to provide it. But by operating with an abiding concern for matters of sensitivity, we believe our coverage provides acurate, meaningful pictures of human drama in as responsible a manner as possible.

Which brings me to a somewhat different but also compelling tragedy for many – the death of musician Tom Petty. Like most of the world, we began hearing of Petty’s “death” early Monday afternoon through chatter on social media. And we felt some strong pressure to add the reports on our website. But our editors noted that the Associated Press was still not reporting Petty’s death even hours after CBS News issued a report from the Los Angeles Police Department and after many other outlets citing unnamed sources had declared him dead. These are difficult hours in an editor’s day. Competition to be the first to get people the information they want has always been strong in this business; in today’s every-second-counts news cyle, the pressure is greater than it has ever been. But it still demands studied restraint, a quality whose merits became clear when the LAPD acknowledged it had given CBS information prematurely and Petty’s true condition, dire as it was, was clarified.

Assistant Managing Editor for News Neil Holdway and Digital Editor Travis Siebrass particularly maintained that control.

“No one ever remembers who’s first with a story. But everyone remembers if you’re wrong,” Siebrass said more than once as people pressed him to know when we would post reports of Petty’s death,

The events of this week have been trying on the national psyche. They must, of course, be reported on. They cannot be sterilized or stripped of their drama and human impact. But the reporting still can be vivid, accurate and timely without milking sensationalism. If it’s rash emotion you want, social media and some other sources are only too ready and available, as anyone knows who followed Twitter in the hours and days after the Las Vegas shootings,

If it’s humanity, sensitivity and accuracy that counts, we aim to be your resource.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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