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The decisions we make

November 1, 2009
Messenger News

We don't make life and death decisions in the newsroom, but we are frequently called upon to make decisions about life and death.

In a one-week span in Fort Dodge, there was a fatal fire, a young man whose life ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and a stabbing in which the victim later died.

There are general policies about what we cover and how, but we consider each event individually. Each is a matter of judgment - and it's not always the same person's judgment since news happens 24 hours a day. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we wish we could reconsider.

The damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't factor is always at work. If you have too much detail, are you invading the victim's or the victim's family's privacy? If you don't have enough detail, are people complaining that The Messenger didn't provide them with the news?

One commonly used definition of news is that it's what people are talking about. The Messenger doesn't control that.

Neighbors know whose house is on fire, they see when someone is wheeled out of a house covered by a sheet and when someone who appears to be alive is wheeled into an ambulance. People see a house on fire. Or, they see a group of emergency workers and law enforcement personnel at a home - emergency lights on and sirens blazing - and they know something is going on. And they start to talk, among themselves and to other people.

If the newspaper didn't print any photos or write a single word, the information would still spread throughout the community.

So, the balancing act begins. What do we print and when do we print it?

People who are grieving often ask us how we would feel if it was a member of our family.

I can answer that question only as it pertains to me. I was in The Messenger newsroom one day when a Des Moines TV station ran a story naming a woman who was killed when the vehicle she was riding in was struck by a freight train. The woman was my aunt. That's how I found out she was dead.

Years later, I got a call from a family friend telling me my mother had shot herself to death.

The news is never easy to hear. It didn't hurt any more or any less for me because one announcement came over the TV and one came over the telephone. Of course, it's nicer to have the luxury of family and friends beside you when you get painful news. But it doesn't change the ultimate message.

I don't know that it will help to explain some of our reasoning regarding our decisions, but I offer this:

We couldn't officially confirm the name of the person who died in the house fire, however, we were fairly certain of the woman's identity because a neighbor told The Messenger who lived there. People who knew her likely would have recognized her home from the photo and address, regardless of whether we had included her name. We have a press deadline, and we held off sending the page with the story as long as we could. Because the state fire marshal's office is still investigating, we have not had official confirmation of the victim's identity. However, an obituary for the person who we believe is the victim has already run in The Messenger. I'm not sure it makes sense to not connect the dots and just say that she was the person who died in the fire.

When the young man died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a Messenger photographer had heard the scanner call and showed up on the scene. When he learned the shooting was a suicide, the photographer left without taking a photo. However, counseling sessions for students were held at Iowa Central and a candlelight vigil was held in his honor Thursday night. We ran a photo of that outpouring of support in Friday's paper. Had a hundred people shown up at my family's home when my mother died, I wouldn't have minded a bit if that image showed up in a newspaper. There is a lot of confusion, isolation and loneliness when a family member chooses to leave. To see that so many people cared, and to share that message with the community, could have been some small comfort.

A man was stabbed Thursday night and a Messenger photographer and reporter arrived at the house while emergency workers were transporting the victim to an ambulance. The man was later pronounced dead. We would not have run a photo had that photo not shown a person -who appeared to still be alive - hooked up to an IV and wearing an oxygen mask that obscured his face. At the scene, Messenger staff members believed they knew the identity of the man, but we waited until we could positively confirm that identification on Friday through a public record.

We try to be respectful of family members. We also try to inform the community of what's happening to their neighbors. We won't make everyone happy with every decision, We don't take any of the decisions lightly. We try our best.

Barbara Wallace Hughes is the managing editor of The Messenger.



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