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Second Opinion: News of tragedy tough for everyone

Published: Saturday, March 8, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, March 8, 2014 8:24 a.m. CDT

Few people, few families, few communities escape having to deal with tragedy during a lifetime.

Heinous crimes, horrific accidents, dreaded diseases push people to the limits of their faith, testing their resolve, challenging their inner strength.

Some people are lucky enough to experience such personal pain only once – but they will tell you that once is enough for a lifetime.

Those of us in the news business have a different experience with tragedy – as a part of our everyday jobs.

We often find ourselves trying to gather and report information of community interest amid the grief and suffering of friends and family of the people at the center of a tragedy.

No matter how many times we do it, it never gets easier.

AFTER A FATAL traffic accident in September 2011, this editor’s column discussed the public reaction to – including criticism of – the newspaper’s coverage.

In part, the column said this:

This newspaper’s coverage of that accident brought a new dimension to a public discussion we often hear when tragedy makes news.

Friends and family of the victim, already hurt and angry, are especially sensitive to how the media reports such events of great local interest.

How much detail is too much? What photos are appropriate to help report the story? Where is the line between legitimate public inquiry and violating family privacy?

Different people will have different opinions.

But in his 40 years of covering this kind of news, this editor has learned it is virtually impossible for the reporting not to offend someone.

That hasn’t changed.

THIS NEWSPAPER’S Facebook page carried a telling conversation this past Tuesday afternoon.

Dozens of comments were posted to our latest story about the previous weekend’s shooting death of a 15-year-old boy.

About half of the comments criticized the newspaper’s coverage of the tragedy, and some angry readers characterized us as “blood sucking” news ghouls. One reader suggested we stop reporting until the police investigation was complete.

And the other half took the position that the newspaper was merely covering the news as it does for any event of public interest. Some encouraged us to continue reporting the story, despite the reluctance of investigators to answer questions.

In such tragedies, the media have two distinct audiences.

One is a relatively small group of family, friends and acquaintances of the people involved. They see reporting as largely intrusive and insensitive to people in their circle who are living with the consequences of the tragedy.

The other is everybody else, the vast majority of our audience who don’t know the people involved. While they sympathize with the people caught up in the tragedy, they also want to know details of the police investigation – a gun death being especially topical amid this nation’s debate over the possession of firearms.

Both groups are our readers.

We report with that fact in mind.

REGARDLESS OF how we approach the reporting, we know some people will be displeased with our performance.

No detail is too small, no inquiry so subtle that it won’t spark outrage in someone who already is hurting in some way from the awful event.

In that September 2011 column, the editor also wrote this:

We never seek to offend readers, but we realize it sometimes happens when we do our job.

Criticism is an occupational hazard for the messenger of bad news.

In fact, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists speaks to that issue in a section titled Minimize Harm.

“Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort,” it cautions journalists.

Experienced reporters and editors are well aware of that.

SEVERAL COMMENTS, received by phone and through online posts took issue with the main headline of our Monday morning editions: Boy, 15, killed by ‘close friend’

Many of them demanded to know, Why didn’t the headline say the shooting was accidental?

In fact, a story “kicker” – placed above the main headline – said, Teen dies in accidental shooting.

But, for some people, that wasn’t good enough.

No detail is too small that it won’t spark outrage in someone.

POLICE REPORTED almost immediately that the shooting was accidental.

But they didn’t offer details about how they knew it was an accident.

One reader who objected to that Monday headline wrote this to us: “The families, friends, schools and community know that this unintentional, life-changing, horrific ACCIDENT was just that.”

But most of our readers are not family, friends, neighbors or classmates of the boys involved.

All they know – all we know – is what police will say publicly.

Was it an accident? Probably. But most of us don’t have the information – or relationships – necessary to draw that conclusion.

This tragedy involves an official police investigation, and you will have to forgive any public skepticism about state police investigating a shooting that occurred – as this one did – in the home of a state trooper.

The performance of police agencies is a matter of great public interest, and the possibility of a conflict of interest that could compromise an investigation only heightens that interest.

Sorry, but that is not an irrelevant detail to most folks.

DURING THE 6 YEARS this editor has been around here, we’ve reported many tragic deaths.

Five local people were murdered – including a 2-year-old – in a brutal homicide spree in 2008.

Five teens have lost their lives in farm accidents.

The Sauk Valley has had dozens of traffic fatalities, most of them preventable.

Each of them different, yet all of them the same.

We’re sorry that we have to bring you those stories, but we must.

And we’re sorry for your loss.

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