Recently, one of our editors called me and I could hear the concern in her voice. She was shaken after hearing from relatives of the victim of violence in her town. They didn’t like that the newspaper included unsavory aspects of the deceased’s past.
So the question today: What counts as newsworthy after someone has died?
The truth is there is no right answer. You could argue successfully that a crime victim’s past arrest is unrelated to what happened to the victim. You could argue that the arrest is public record, previously reported and adds context. The calculus likely changes depending on the deceased’s public profile.
I think finding the balance requires sophisticated reasoning, and I wanted to talk about it.
I told the editor that, in my opinion, including past felony convictions toward the bottom of the story is not only defensible, but preferable in this particular instance. The story involved a public act of violence and subsequent police chase that ended in another death. It was the talk of the town.
In addition, the previously reported arrests were also popping up in social media posts around the incident. The news was “out there.” …
I think it was important to include because that was important in helping readers understand the nature of the crime and perhaps whether they themselves should be worried about further violence. I don’t think it painted the victim as anything but that in this instance. I told our editor that I understood why relatives were grieving and looking to displace that grief, but that she didn’t do anything to make things worse.
I also told the editor that I didn’t mean to second guess. These decisions are extremely difficult, made in the middle of doing a million other things and made quickly. Further, they can vary depending on the community. What is right in Half Moon Bay might not be right for Tulsa, Okla., or New York City.
If you have these kinds of tough calls, you can always go without it on your first online posting, then call me to discuss it.