Monthly Archives: November 2007

Photo of dead child disturbs some readers

I got this note from a reader today. It echoed several phone calls and messages we received in reaction to our Page 1 photo of a mother grieving in a funeral home near the open casket of her teenage son, who was killed while in state foster care.
“I am absolutely appalled at the poor taste used in today’s paper. Not only should the picture of a casket and a body never have been made, except possibly if a family member wanted it and I can’t imagine why they would, it certainly should have never been published by a responsible paper.
“Not only do your readers not need to see it, what about a child seeing it on a chair?
“Please use some discretion, I thought the body bags were about the worst you could do but you have topped it!”
This was my response:
“Thank you for your note. The photograph was made with the consent of the family, as indicated by the mother’s presence in the picture. I expect that the reason she supported the photograph was because she wanted the community to fully recognize the depth of the tragedy that had occurred.
“Newspapers sometimes are faced with the question of whether or not to publish disturbing photos. Usually, it is the underlying events that are truly disturbing, as in this case. Newspapers must decide whether to withhold a harsh image of a matter of public concern — such as the death of a child in state custody — or present the image, which is likely to be upsetting to some but also is likely to draw more public attention to the serious issue.
“In this case, we decided to publish the photo because, though it depicted a painful scene, nothing gruesome was visible. The dead child’s face could not be seen. In fact, there is only the least evidence that he is lying in the open coffin. It was not an immediately shocking scene that would upset young children. A mature understanding of the context was necessary to appreciate the painfulness of the moment.
“I appreciate your feedback very much. We have heard from some other readers, and we have had discussions among our editors about how we might handle a similar photo in the future. Your comments help guide us. Thank you for your interest in the News Sentinel.”

Did we bury a Bush expose?

This week a reader accused us of intentionally downplaying an item about President Bush’s former spokesman stating in a book that, while working for the White House, he had unwittingly passed along lies about the leaking of the Valerie Plame information:
“While your newspaper sued and won a case against the Knox County Commissioners for violation of Sunshine laws, I find it hypocritical that in today’s edition of the paper that you relegated Scott McClellan’s revelation of the corrupt practice of Bush and others to “In Brief” on Page 6 instead of the front page. The American people have long believed that Bush and his top cronies lied to the nation about the leaks surrounding the CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Now, the former White House press secretary confesses the truth. And what do you do with the announcement? You stick it in an obscure spot, likely, hoping that readers will miss it. Please explain to me, since I am a reasonable man, how such reporting is not a case of duplicity? By the way, this was the lead story on AOL.”
Here’s how I responded:
“The answer to your question is indicated within your note. Today there is a vast array of media sources delivering national news, from 24-hour TV channels to Internet sites such as AOL. A local newspaper can rarely provide national information that interested readers have not already received from other sources. The news you mention was widely disseminated by the national media. In fact, your complaint is not that you did not receive the information, but rather that we did not use enough of our space to reiterate the information you received elsewhere.
“We have made a conscious decision to focus our resources on local news, which we are uniquely positioned to report and deliver. We provide some national news, for the convenience of readers who want one-stop shopping, so to speak. And if major national stories break, we do treat them with the prominence they deserve, while also trying to develop local angles. However, the story you cite, based on a few quotes extracted by a book publisher to promote a book, does not rise to that major news threshhold, in my judgment.
“I spoke recently to a civic group, and asked in passing for a show of hands on how many people believed the News Sentinel had a liberal bias and how many believed it had a conservative bias. More believed we held a liberal bias than a conservative one. I readily admit we are imperfect in our news judgment and we are staffed by individuals who, like all humans, have biases. But often I find that accusations of bias are more reflective of the political views of the accuser than of the accused.”

Why run photo of car mangled in fatal accident?

I received this note from a young woman today.
“I am a friend of both Matt Lambert and Cody Bowers and a graduate of Maryville College ’05. We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this accident and the loss of Cody.
“I would greatly appreciate the removal of the photograph of Cody’s truck from the news story about his death. If you cannot or choose not to remove this picture I would appreciate an email explaining the reasoning behind wanting to publish a photograph that clearly shows the deceased’s blood.”
This was my response:
“There is a reason we run photographs of such vehicles and include details such as whether seat belts were worn or alcohol involved. That is because it is instructive to young people who are just beginning to learn the seriousness of safe driving. I realize this is harsh and may be particularly painful to the people associated with a tragic accident. But as a parent of teenagers, I also know that parents use such examples to drive home to their children what might be a life-saving lesson. You may be aware of programs that take vehicles from fatal accidents to schools to impress the same lesson upon young drivers.”
I did tell the reader I would review the use of the photo with other editors, however, and I did so. This photograph was especially grim because blood was visible. For that reason, we already had decided not to use it in print, where people were more likely to see it involuntarily than online.In response to the woman’s note, we did make the image smaller on, too. View the story here.

Dining on the county’s dime

Well, I blew it. As mentioned in today’s story, I let Mike Ragsdale and Dwight Van de Vate pick up the check when publisher Bruce Hartmann and I met them for lunch. The oversight violated our Editorial Code of Conduct, which states, in part: “We should refuse any gifts, special treatment or any other thing of more than token value given in the course of professional activities. This includes free or cut-rate services of any kind such as discounts on clothes, free meals, free fishing tackle or gear, free or cut-rate trips, free “loan” cars, free or cut-rate club memberships. The general rule should be if the gift is, or may be, offered even partly because the recipient works for a newspaper, it should not be accepted.”
I go out to lunch a fair amount in the course of business, and Bruce Hartmann and I sometimes go together and meet with community or business leaders. Often the News Sentinel picks up the tab, but sometimes the other parties do. Clearly, in the case of county government, I should have made sure we got the check every time.
Some comments on questioned why this revelation was coming now. Number9, who sometimes comments on this blog, wrote: “Why did this weak mea culpa from the News Sentinel take so long to come out? Is it because of Lewis Cosby’s work and the investigative reporting of WBIR? It would have meant much more if this had been made public months ago, before others had discovered it.”
The fact is, we did disclose one lunch, with reporter Rebecca Ferrar, a few months ago, when we realized it had happened. I frankly didn’t remember this other one. The receipt was just recently turned up by reporter Ansley Haman, who was reviewing county p-card expenses for the 2006-07 fiscal year.
As mentioned in today’s story, I issued a memo to the staff in July reminding everyone in the newsroom to be sure to pick up the check for all business lunches. That reminder is one I’ll take to heart myself.

City officials rally ’round Sunshine Law

After our recent sunshine suit, the Tennessee Municipal League joined the Association of Counties in pushing to gut the Open Meetings Act by allowing any group less than a quorum to meet in secret.
I wonder on whose behalf the Municipal League is lobbying? The Knoxville City Council this week unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Sunshine Law, as is, and mayors across the state have weighed in publicly against the quorum rule. View the story here.
Maybe TML’s reaction was just a kneejerk assumption that more secrecy is what local government officials want. Happily, that’s proving to be untrue.

Tell us what you think about the News Sentinel

Teams of employees at the News Sentinel are fanning out into the community — and contacting subscribers — to see what readers and potential readers think about our product.
How do you use the News Sentinel? What’s most important to you? What should we provide that you really need? What should we be doing less of?
Feel free to leave a comment here. We’d like to hear from you.