I think the Express made a serious mistake

About two weeks ago, the Lebanon Express ran a story on a motorcycle crash outside Lebanon in which two people were killed. The story quoted a bystander describing some of the injuries sustained by one of the deceased in descriptive but not, in my opinion, overly graphic terms.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the story until I got a message on Facebook from a friend asking me if a relative of mine still worked at the paper.  This happens periodically, and when it does, alarm bells go off in my head, because it usually means they have a bone to pick with something that appeared in the paper; less often it just means they have a wedding announcement or something similar they are going to submit.  This case turned to be the former (and I should note that most of the time the proverbial bone to pick ends up being silly).  And, when I read the story, I agreed with the person who contacted me:  the inclusion in the story of the line describing the injury to the deceased was wrong.

I came to that conclusion based on something of a balancing test:  Whether the journalistic value of the contested information outweighed the potential harm done to the family that could (and, as it turns out, would) occur to the family from seeing that information in the newspaper.

First, the journalistic value in including the information:  I don’t really see much.  This could be argued, but I just fail to see how including information about the specifics of the injuries in the way adds any significant journalistic value to the story. It’s out of the norm; for most accidents, it seems like newspaper include a vague, general description of injuries, and that’s it, or even just a general description of the level of injury sustained (critical, life-threatening, non-life threatening, etc.).  And the argument that it’s a quote does not excerpt it from any norms about having journalistic value; those norms apply to quotes in all other cases, so this shouldn’t be any different.

Second, the harm done. If you check out the story, there is a comment from the wife of the deceased that makes it crystal clear that harm was done to the family by including the contested information.  That doesn’t seem very debatable.

Third, the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp) states, in part: “Journalists should… show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” Given the harm done to the family for the negligible value added (made even more clearly negligible because it was removed from the story), I think it’s no stretch at all to claim that the decision to print the quote violates the SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

So as the result of said balancing test, I think the harm done through the inclusion of the description of the person’s injuries outweighs – significantly – any value in including the information, and thus the decision to include it becomes wrong.

The Express has, since the initial story went up, removed the language in question and left a note on the bottom of the story indicating they changed something in the story; however, they did not indicate what they changed or why.

Having established the harm done, and the SPJ violation, what do I think the Express should do now?

Apologize, of course.  And run it both on the web and in print.  They haven’t – and I doubt they will.

Why is an apology important? The obvious reason is that it is the right thing to do by the family of the deceased. However, I want to point out that there’s another reason: The Express’ self-interest.

By running the description, the Express clearly damaged its reputation among some members of the community. It’s a small paper, in a small market, in an era where newspapers are folding left and right. It can’t afford to alienate readers.  I know all the Lee papers in the valley are, at the least, seeing smaller-than-usual profit margins, even if they are still making money (and I would not be surprised to find out some of them are losing money).

Morever, an apology is a way to lift the curtain a bit and let people see that the newspaper is produced by human beings whose judgment isn’t perfect (and if that scares any newspaper staff, let me assure you the public already knows you’re not omniscient, so you can go ahead and drop the act). It’s also a chance to educate readers on the process of reporting and editing a newspaper. It lets readers identify with the newspaper, not against it. This is the emerging trend in journalism, for better or worse.

And again from the perspective of the LE, I fail to see where the harm is in apologizing – the damage has already been done; apologizing can be an effective way to defuse the anger.  Refusing to apologize – or more importantly, refusing to have a conversation with readers either defending the decision or explaining why it was made – means the anger at the newspaper is what people are left with.  I would think it would be obvious that this is a bad thing from the point of view of the newspaper, but apparently not.

As well, the web may not be where most people read the story, but it is where the comments were left, and it is the future of newspapers (possibly less so for small-town papers like the LE, but it is still a significant part of the future).  The web is also where the story was amended, since it can’t be amended in the print addition.  And finally, the web is where interaction between readers and newspaper staff occurs.  Yes, it can occur in person as well, but not the same degree, and not, in general, publicly – see my last point about letting readers have a glimpse behind the curtain & engaging them on the decision-making process.

At this point, you might be asking why I didn’t just contact the paper directly and ask for an apology.  I did, and was told in no uncertain terms that there was not going to be an apology.  I was not given a reason beyond the fact that Lee newspapers don’t really apologize for anything.  Hence this blog post.

Bottom Line:  The Express made an error when it included a quote in the story that had a graphic description of one of the deceased, but it made a mistake when it refused to apologize, run a correction, or even explain or defend its decision to the community.  Errors are correctable.  Mistakes are not.

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4 Comments on “I think the Express made a serious mistake”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Hi, Dennis. I don’t recall what the Express said, and I’ll make no judgments as to whether they did the right thing at the time or now. However, “Lee newspapers” most certainly apologize if they wish to. Many of our corrections include the words, “The Democrat-Herald regrets the error” (not all, because sometimes the incorrect info came from the source, not us) and I know I’ve read multiple editorials in which editors have apologized for misunderstandings or hurt feelings resulting from our coverage. It would take me a while to find examples, but I can tell you it can and does happen. Whether it was warranted in this case, I can’t say.

  2. Dennis Says:

    I stand corrected re: apologies.

    Also, can’t say or won’t say? =)

  3. Jennifer Says:

    Truly can’t. We’d already written our own piece so I just glanced at theirs and didn’t see the quote or description or whatever was in question.

  4. Susan Says:

    I read the article prior to it being edited.

    To directly quote a witness to the condition of the body of an accident victim, should never have happened.

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