I've been working on versions of this post all day. I've read every comment, blog post and e-mail concerning the subject, listened to advisers and tried to remain as objective as possible.
For those of you who don't know, yesterday, The News Record broke news about a man falling off the WLWT transmitter tower in Clifton Heights. We were the first reporters on the scene, we followed the story all day (and night), and it was the top story on our front page this morning. While other Cincinnati-area media gave it a brief or a short online article, the staff at TNR spent approximately eight hours gathering and going over the content and information concerning the man and the incident.
Since we posted the article on our website yesterday afternoon, we've received a lot of feedback. Ashley Anderson of "A Blonde's Guide to the World" accuses TNR of extremely disappointing bad journalism. Facebook comments on our website range from demands to remove the article from our website and issue and apology to others who say we're just doing our jobs.
The article's been called inappropriate, disrespectful, shocking, gruesome, disgusting, well-written, current, relevant and disturbing. We've been accused of violating basic journalism ethics, needing a good dose of compassion, lacking respect and common courtesy, being horribly explicit and crossing the line. One e-mail condescendingly reminded us that we are students of journalism, not journalists. Another person quoted the SPJ Code of Ethics at us.
You can read my colleagues' responses here, here and here. While they have explained the situation very well, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on the past two days and this event -- honestly, I can say I've been thinking about it nonstop.
These are the sort of moments that define what sort of journalist you are. And yes, I say journalist (not merely student of journalism, although we are also that). We work at a fully functioning newspaper; furthermore, most of the TNR staff has been published in other media, including CityBeat, The Cincinnati Enquirer and the Dayton Daily News. We work as journalists, we learn as journalists. While, yes, we are still student journalists, I have to respectfully disagree that this makes us less professional or less responsible for our actions.
Anyway, there is most certainly a line between newsworthy and sensational. There is a line between information the public needs and deserves to know and information that is merely used for shock value. In situations like this, however, that line is fuzzy at best. Some readers say the TNR article should be taken down completely and thus, not covered. With this, I disagree. There were dozens of witnesses at the scene and many others who heard information secondhand. As a newspaper, it is our duty to present the facts to those who want and, sometimes, need to know them.
Others say that a more appropriate, modified, compelling story should be put in place of the current version. Some also ask for a formal apology from all involved with the article.
This is where it gets hard, because what exactly makes an appropriate story? What sort of story can a newspaper print that doesn't offend anyone? I understand how offense could be taken from certain language used in the story -- in fact, after discussing the article with a journalism adviser, two paragraphs were taken out of the online version. I wholeheartedly agree that journalists must use extreme caution in the language we use, the quotes we select and the images we present, and that respect for a human being, living or dead, must be a priority.
At the same time, we have a duty to the public to explain the events that occurred. We have a duty to present the facts of the event and tell the whole story, no matter if it upsets us or has the potential to be read by someone who does not want to know the information. (As one commenter said, if you don't want to know the information, don't read the story.) I can assure every reader that the people involved in writing this story were very upset by the events and the death that occurred. It did not weigh lightly on any of us, as you can see from the reactions we've posted. I can also assure that extreme care was taken with selection of the information we received. The News Record took into consideration the feelings of family and friends and omitted the information and images we found disturbing.
So do we owe our readers and apology? I think not. We presented the article carefully and tried to be considerate. Did we cross a line? I think perhaps some of the language we used could have been reworded. I know some of the editors disagree with me, and that's fine. I still stand by the article we published, and I still stand by the editors, writers and photographers that contributed to the story. Yes, we are student journalists and, yes, we are still learning. We are learning about how a newsroom functions, where our own personal ethics lie and just what it takes to cover a story so tragic. Turns out, it takes a lot of strength, and for that, I couldn't be prouder of our staff. They handled the situation maturely, with respect and feeling for those involved.
In Wednesday's TNR Extra edition, we are planning on writing a staff ed concerning the event and the reactions we've received. Personally, I plan on doing a follow-up article to the one published today. I want to talk with the man's family and friends about his life -- I think that's just as important to focus on as his death. If you are interested, please don't hesitate to contact me. If you still feel TNR has done an injustice, allow us to remedy the situation by providing the opportunity to celebrate the life of someone you care about. Because, often, that is the most newsworthy information of all.