Enduring questions

Matt Westerhold
Dec 2, 2013

 

Where is the line drawn?

Should news organizations report an elderly couple was killed after getting rear-ended by a 24-year-old man driving a new $60,000 car at 125 mph on the Ohio Turnpike, but not mention the minivan they were in became engulfed in flames and they were unable to escape from it?

There's another way to state how they died; a more sensational way to relate the facts of what occurred on the Ohio Turnpike just west of Fremont on Thanksgiving just past 7 p.m. But choices must be made, and a moment after reading “unable to escape from it,” readers have the horrible reality of how that couple died at the hands of a speeding motorist.

News reporters and editors don't have to sensationalize the news. The news is sensational by its very occurring. The Turnpike accident. The fiery crash photo from another traffic fatality on Friday in Danbury Township. The death of a mother and child in a house fire Nov. 24.

Should news reporters and editors skip the gory details and spare readers and the families of people who die tragic deaths? In recent weeks, our community has had more than its share of tragic, quick death.

Collectively, however, journalists do spare readers and families every day. In some community, somewhere, someone will die today a horrible death and a news reporter will gather as much detail about how and why it happened, and with their editors they will decide how much of that information they can give readers.

It is an enduring question.

More than the printed word, death photos move readers. The execution in Saigon of a Vietcong prisoner. The infamous series of images that became known as the “Boston Photographs.” Those images published in newspapers all over the world depicted the failed rescue of a woman and child trapped in a burning tenement house.

Firefighters were just moments from rescuing the woman and child when the fire escape on the burning building where they were standing collapsed and she fell to her death. The child fell on top of her body and survived.

The photographer continued to snap photos as the tragedy unfolded and captured the moments just before her terrifying fall. He looked away, however, at the moment of death, unable to look at what was happening right before his eyes.

The late Nora Ephron, journalist, author and film director, defended the decisions newspaper editors made to publish those photographs despite the outpouring from readers that it was wrong. Dead wrong.

“Death happens to be one of life's main events,” Ephron wrote in an essay first published in 1978.

“It may be that the real lesson of the 'Boston photographs is not in the danger that editors will be forgetful of reader reaction, but that they will continue to censor pictures of death precisely because of that reaction,” Ephron wrote.

Everybody seems to have an opinion about what a newspaper should, and should not cover.

Some readers prefer community stories about the positive things people do in our community, highlighting good deeds. Without any doubt, community newspapers should cover those stories and should give them prominent display on the front pages. The Register does that every day, in abundance.

But the harsh realities of life are equally important.

Comments

Turduckenbreath

As with every balancing act, deciding what to publish will be imprecise. It is far more art than science. The measure of an editor is taken over many stories and photos, and answers the question "What happened?" with dignity, precision, and taste.

The people of this area are fortunate to have the Sandusky Register, just as it is. It's in good hands.

Licorice Schtick

Reporting the facts, all of the facts available, is journalism.

A photo of a flaming car on page one with just sensational facts of undisclosed dubiousness is yellow journalism. It ain't that difficult to tell the difference.

Can't blame struggling papers for going a little yellow. It's proved to be a helpful survival tactic. No point apologizing for it. Probably best to avoid the subject.

Still a fan.

BTW, re: Toledo school lockdown - the police reported taking the suspect into custody about three hours ago.

https://twitter.com/Toledo_Polic...

Contango

Re: "More than the printed word, death photos move readers."

Reminded me of the chilling images of people being filmed as they jumped from the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Jack518

Why should any newspaper fear to print the TRUTH about an article as long as it is the truth? Death is a natural part of life: the end of it. If it happens in a sensational manner, then so be it. It cannot be helped. Why should any manner of news reporting be ashamed of reporting the truth about that? It need not be sensationalized, just reported as is. It is a shame that some things are grizzly by nature, but they are. Too bad that some things are horrific just as they are, but they are.

As long as ANY form of reporting is done truthfully without extra fanfare, just good clean reporting of fact, no one should mind anything that is reported. It should be accurate, fact filled and truthful. As long as the Sandusky Register stays within those parameters they shouldn't fear what they print.

deertracker

Agreed!

Eph 2 8-10

"Anything we communicate will be twisted according to the mind it enters. Our ideologies are not powerful enough to overcome our audience's mental machinations." ~ Katya Andersen in her book, "Robinhood Marketing"

Keep Focused

"News reporters and editors don't have to sensationalize the news. The news is sensational by its very occurring. "

I feel the Register does a good job when there is a tragic event to report. There presentation is a result of well reasoned decisions.

Where the Register fails often is in the use of headlines to report more normal events or the frequency in reporting events where they have decided to put the pressure on someone or some organization. In these cases the editorial policy of the Register goes well past a balanced report of the news.

In any news story you have to make a decision of what should be reported or from what perspective the article should flow. As a result some information gets left out. I feel frequently the Register develops an article using information that will stir people up rather than give them information that would suggest that someone has made a well reasoned and researched decision.

My comments here are not always true. As another commenter has stated, the Registers performance has to be measured over time and article after article.

I do feel the editorial performance of the Register has the opportunity to improve a lot.

SamAdams

It is the OBLIGATION of the news reporter to do just that: Report the news. And it is the Constitutional RESPONSIBILITY of the news outlets to give that reporter the platform for the reports.

I appreciate that family members and close friends of those who perish in some sort of tragedy doubtless don't appreciate reliving their horror through such reports. I respectfully submit that they shouldn't read them/watch them if it causes them additional pain. In truth, they're not going to be forgetting anytime soon anyway...and whatever somebody's personal feelings or involvement in a given story, it's "just" news to the rest of us, news we're entitled to hear.

Pragmatic

Mr. Westerhold,

This really is a good question.

The Register does a fine job in reporting this news. Plus, your staff seems fairly quick to get the news out to the community.

I think…reporting ‘just the facts’ and reporting ‘just the facts using creative words’ to create the emotions of tragedy, horror, joy, or excitement is quite different (yet, I think it's desired). I also think it depends on the kind of newspaper (or news program) a company wants to be. News…is a business. Therefore, you need to have a strategic plan to sell your product. This is just good business sense. Some consumers will buy-in and some won’t. That’s business.

A newspaper, magazine, or T.V. news program makes a decision on “what they want to be” by how they choose to report the news. The New York Times has a specific reputation – as does The Wall Street Journal. Then, there are tabloid newspapers, magazines and television shows…AND…IT SELLS!

It would be nice if there was a balance between reading about a teenager stabbing someone and a 70 year old who still runs marathons. We may all take the self-righteous road and say that we would read the paper more often if there were softer, kinder, and gentler stories in the paper. But, really? Does it sell? If it did…every media outlet would be using it. On the business side of a newspaper, you know what sells. For the good, bad, or ugly – you know what will get someone to buy that paper. It might be just the facts or it might be just the facts spiced up.

Ultimately, Mr. Westerhold, I do believe human beings want to feel “something”. If people want just the facts (let’s say, regarding traffic accidents) they can read them on the Ohio State Patrol website or the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Both websites give “just the facts”.

Some people view this through an elementary lens - but, at the foundation, we can't do that. You see…your occupation isn’t just about business or even the writing discipline. Mr. Westerhold, your occupation is about psychology. The foundation of writing stems from psychology. How can you tap into the limbic system (emotional brain) of your readers? This may not always be positive, but you tapped in anyway. I hear people complaining about the news all of the time, yet they read it and tune it. Humans have a need to “feel”. This…is your business.

One of General Colin Powell’s leadership principles: “Sometimes you have to piss people off.”
Well, sometimes the news will make people angry, but I’ve sat through religious sermons that didn’t sit well with me either; yet others relished in the message. Each journalist needs to be true to themselves…yet…their stories need to sell newspapers. The Sandusky Register isn’t a non-profit company. You aren’t here for pure altruistic reasons. It’s a business. Businesses need to survive. In the media, as proven, this can be done in many ways.

I think your team does a fine job.

Julie R.

LIKE.

OMG.LOL.WT_

In 1897, Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, created the famous slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print," which still appears on the masthead of the newspaper today. He wrote the slogan as a declaration of the newspaper's intention to report the news impartially.