Covering difficult stories

Accountable means answering questions

Posted 1/8/20

Several readers have taken us to task for last week’s report on the death of Warren Shelley-Rose, the 41-year-old man reported missing Dec. 28 and then found dead Dec. 29 on the bluffs off …

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Covering difficult stories

Accountable means answering questions

Posted

Several readers have taken us to task for last week’s report on the death of Warren Shelley-Rose, the 41-year-old man reported missing Dec. 28 and then found dead Dec. 29 on the bluffs off Elmira Street in Port Townsend.

As Editor, I’m accountable and always open to learning how we can do better, so I hope readers  will take this note in the spirit I intend: not argumentative, but explaining how we piece together a difficult story.

Honesty compels me to say the hardest thing first: the paper has to consider numerous stakeholders in addition to the bereaved family. The community, the first responders and the paper itself have valid interests that must be weighed and it is your right to challenge Leader decisions.

At deadline, we did not know if Mr. Shelley-Rose died in an accident, foul play or suicide.  While we routinely report on accidents and homicides, the only suicides we report on are those involving public figures or those committed in some public place. The public agency search for Mr. Shelley-Rose and the public location where he was found made this a proper subject for a story, no matter if it was suicide or not. With public dollars and public agencies engaged, it was then our job to answer the standard questions: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Complaints about the coverage have focused on four decisions.

Facebook photo: My experience of 30 years is that all stakeholders prefer that coverage include a photo of the deceased to humanize them and allow friends and acquaintances to remember the person in life. Connecting a face to the name is also helpful to law enforcement, as it can sometimes bring forward witnesses who saw the person in their last hours and can help investigators create a timeline. Unable to reach the family at presstime, we downloaded and published a Facebook picture of Mr. Shelley-Rose that had long been available to millions of people.

Recovery photos: A local man using a public trail was one of several who observed the recovery effort. He took pictures and shared them with us without fee. I selected two images that emphasized the lengths to which first responders had to go, but sought to minimize harm by choosing pictures in which Mr. Shelley-Rose was not identifiable.

Agency staff have been called on repeatedly this month to undertake significant risk in cases like this, which taxpayers are entitled to know about. If Mr. Shelley-Rose had been at all recognizable in those photos, I would not have used them. Our intent was to show this was a difficult and dangerous operation of some complexity and that it was successfully completed.

GoFundMe campaign: There was a lot of information on Mr. Shelley-Rose’s public Facebook page related to the GoFundMe campaign to help out with the cost of his cancer treatment. This is the part of the story where the newspaper is also a stakeholder: Readers expect journalists to provide, not hide, context. Information about Mr. Shelley-Rose’s brain cancer diagnosis was available to anyone with a Facebook account. The progress of a GoFundMe campaign to defray medical costs is useful context for readers seeking to understand what happened to Mr. Shelley-Rose. If anything, I expected it to engender sympathy and not to in any way harm the family.

Police uncertainty: At deadline, police were clear they still had not determined whether this was an accident, a suicide or foul play. That’s not something we could leave out and it certainly was not intended to in any way demean Mr. Shelley-Rose.

It’s impossible to publish a newspaper that offends nobody, but we do our best to balance the interests of multiple stakeholders when we put together each week’s report on the good and bad news of our county.

It’s important for critics and fans alike to understand a story like this is not an opportunity to sell papers. While a few big-city newspapers pump up street sales with blaring top-of-the-page headlines, most newspapers, including The Leader, rely on subscribers and habitual readers.

My colleagues are motivated by a sincere obligation to provide the most factual and comprehensive account of each week’s news they can, be it happy or sad, answering readers’ questions as well as we can in the time we have. None of us gain financially from a blip in sales. And while the story merited front page treatment, we placed it below the fold, which meant it was not visible to single-copy buyers until they already decided to buy.

The Leader welcomes and publishes earnest critiques. To frame your complaint, we encourage you to rely on the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which calls us to seek and report the truth, minimize harm, operate independently and to  be transparent and accountable to the community we serve. You’ll find it online here: spj.org/ethicscode.asp

(Dean Miller is the editor of the Port Townsend Leader)

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