Wick Communications

Circle back and humanize

In Writing techniques on 15 May 2015 at 8:27 am

circle back pic

The best stories often begin when authorities – in the White House, Congress, local city hall or the sheriff’s office – say, “No comment.” That is the case in Enfield, N.C., as we speak.

That is where a career criminal named Michael Tyrone Gallagher was killed while in police custody. Cops encountered Gallagher at the scene of a burglary-in-progress. A police lieutenant and a bystander, a man who used to be a cop, rushed to arrest Gallagher. A stun gun was used. Emergency medical technicians responded. And Gallagher was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The nature of the confrontation that night is a bit murky, and the official press release fails to answer all the questions. Officials say release of an autopsy could be months away. That hasn’t stopped the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald from asking the right questions and seeking those answers.

Editor Matt Lindberg reached out early to discuss the story and how to handle it. Specifically, he wanted to know how I felt about an anonymous source. He said his news site rarely if ever uses anonymous sources. We agreed that the source in this case wasn’t so compelling as to justify an extraordinary change to the newspaper’s policy. Ultimately, the source, the owner of the business being burglarized, agreed to be interviewed on the record in a follow-up story. …

I want to commend the Daily Herald’s diligence to this point. Cops have clammed up, which is one reason for their nationwide PR problem. So the news staff has sought alternative sources. Reporters for the Daily Herald have tracked down Gallagher’s criminal record. They’ve talked to his father. They found the business owner. And they are working on more full portraits of the dead man and the police officer and bystander involved in the case. Regardless of what ultimately comes out in the paper, these are worthy efforts.

One important point, something the staff did correctly, is worth mentioning. Matt says that when reporters originally contacted the dead man’s father and the business owner both were naturally upset. Reporters went back to each the next day and got more rational, reasonable answers to questions. That extra effort made the news organization more credible and gave readers a better understanding of the truth. It’s important to be first, to report the news. You often have to seek primary sources in the heat of the moment. But it’s just as important to follow up.

Second point: Please note how the story begins with a human being. I love stories that begin with a name. They tend to humanize events. I can almost guarantee that no other news source spoke to the father of the deceased like this. Sometimes telling a story is a better approach than “reporting the news.”

I’ll keep an eye on this story. At this point in our nation’s history, any death while in police custody is potentially a big story.

Clay

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