March 14, 2010

Sensitivity and News Coverage

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A story about death resonates differently in a campus newspaper than it does in a professional newspaper. The coverage should reflect the natural differences between the papers’ audiences and their relevant communities.

College students are young, vibrant and healthy. They are widely cast as cause for American optimism, and many people load their “hope for the future” squarely on the shoulders of college students. So naturally, when a student dies, it strikes a somber tone throughout the campus community. It is inherently one of the newsiest things that can happen on a college campus. Stories about death in major newspapers run a wide gamut of newsworthiness; in a huge paper, a story of a fatal shooting in a high-crime area, for example, might get placed far back in a secondary or local section, if it even gets covered.

Foremost, student coverage of a student death needs to be accurate and reported judiciously. While this is true of any coverage, even a minor mistake in a story about death can have a particularly pernicious effect on an aggrieved reader. Labels also play an important part; The Sun is calling the most recent death an “apparent suicide” based on eyewitness accounts and 911 calls but is not applying such a label to the other deaths. This is appropriate: Authorities are very careful about labels and a newspaper can use its own reporting to apply different ones.

The subject matter is tough to deal with, especially for student reporters who might be handling such a situation for the first time. “We’re trying to be sensitive of the many issues involved — emotional, psychological,” said Managing Editor Michael Stratford ‘11. “We’re trying to be sensitive to the victims and people who are grieving. We’re cognizant of the fact that our coverage can influence people’s mental states, and we’re walking a line between sensitivity and informing the public of what’s going on.”

Sensitivity is important, but so is walking that line. There are stories to be told in light of such tragedies, and reporters cannot shy away from approaching grieving people. Reporters should ask questions carefully and sympathetically, not bluntly. Reporters should apologize for inadvertent insensitivity and respect the needs of their sources. People relate to other people, not to ink on a page; as such, sources’ comfort level should be respected so that the best story is told.

And it is tempting for reporters — young ones especially — to get carried away with dramatic and possibly prurient details, but I think the words of one news-writing book are especially relevant: “In sensitive areas, the whisper speaks louder than the shout.” Death is terrible, and it can frighten even the hardiest individuals; grisly details are the enemy. Annually, Gannett gives Sun editors a guide to “Safe Reporting on Suicide,” and Stratford said the editors encourage familiarity with it. The guide, printed by the Massachusetts-based Suicide Prevention Resource Center, is useful in delineating appropriate boundaries.

The principles of temperance and nuance in reporting should carry the day, especially considering the wide interest these deaths have drawn. The story has attracted attention from elsewhere, even if it is a contemporary iteration of a scene that has played out in Ithaca before — a 1994 New York Times story explored a possible link between Ithaca’s gorges and student suicide. The Huffington Post linked yesterday to a Sun piece about the on-campus reaction to the deaths. Last night, however, the extra traffic brought in by the link overwhelmed The Sun web site.

The link on Huffington Post is certainly good exposure for The Sun, but I imagine the dead link frustrated many Huffington Post readers. The Sun’s web team worked to reboot the server and try to make the specific story more bandwidth-efficient by taking images and interactive content off the page. Mere seconds after the server was rebooted, however, it was already at capacity because of the inbound links.

Death stories are important for many reasons, and I hope The Sun will continue to report smartly and sensitively in the coming days. The Sun also needs to assure that it can handle the extra attention that such stories bring.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli