March 5, 2013

FROM THE EDITORS: Reporting on Student Deaths

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Last week, our campus was faced with the sudden and tragic death of Joe Quandt ’15. The loss of a Cornellian affects not only intimate friends of the deceased, but also every member of our community. In covering Quandt’s death, The Sun made every attempt to do so with sensitivity, professionalism and integrity.

As student journalists, our primary mission is to deliver news to the Cornell and Ithaca communities quickly, accurately and illustratively. In the course of doing our jobs, some of our coverage may upset or anger certain readers. The balance between news value and sensitivity is a difficult one to strike, and it is made all the more complicated by the nuanced relationship The Sun has with its readership, which includes many of our peers.

Our rationale for breaking the news Wednesday night that a body had been found at the Watermargin Cooperative was sound. The public has a right to be informed when a death occurs on Cornell’s campus. In investigating the incident, Sun reporters and editors were thorough, confirming all facts with official University and police sources before publishing them. As is our usual practice, The Sun withheld Quandt’s name from our coverage until we were certain that his next of kin had been notified of his death. The language in our articles, including “body found” and the use of “died” instead of “passed away,” are terms professional media outlets use to avoid being ambiguous or euphemistic.

Additionally, the decision to publish the photograph that accompanied our announcement of Quandt’s death was not made lightly. The image captures the magnitude of this tragedy in a way that the clinical, impersonal language required by a news article often cannot. When looking back on The Sun’s report of Quandt’s death, the photo of his grieving housemates will convey to a removed party the scope of this otherwise unimaginable tragedy.

We will not be reversing the decision made by The Sun’s previous leadership to publish the photograph, and the image will remain on our website as is. We express the deepest of condolences for the loss that many of you have suffered, and we regret any additional grief The Sun’s coverage may have caused. Although we stand by the careful and professional manner in which our reporters handled this particular situation, the concerns of our readers have moved us to reevaluate the way in which we cover campus tragedies.

All Sun editors and staff members will, from this point forward, follow The Sun’s “Protocol for Reporting on Student Deaths.” This new policy, which can be downloaded in PDF form here, outlines our process for handling coverage of student deaths. Most of these practices are already in place. Some of the rules will, of course, evolve over time. We hope that codifying the protocol and making it available to our readership will shine light on how exactly The Sun strives to practice ethical journalism.