Journalists perform balancing act when covering deaths
Clayton Real, a University of Nebraska freshman, was found dead in his fraternity house Sept. 5.
His fraternity released a statement that said his death could have been “caused by a diabetic incident, possibly complicated by off-campus alcohol consumption.”
Is this information important? It did not come from an autopsy, which means this is just a possibility.
How do reporters and editors juggle the public’s right to know and still remain sensitive to the victims or survivors?
The simple answer: the truth.
If someone were to die in a car accident, it would not be important to add that he or she was a sexual predator because it has nothing to do with the car crash.
In Real’s case, Professor John Bender, of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at UNL, said reporters were right to add the suspected cause of the student’s death. He said it granted readers a reasonable explanation rather than leaving readers to question the cause of death. Those unanswered questions could come around to hurt Real’s family.
“Sometimes, the speculation can be worse than the truth,” Bender said.
Different types of death stories require different actions by journalists covering the stories.
“Some circumstances are going to be more problematic for the family, the survivors and others,” Bender said. “It’s never going to be easy no matter what the circumstances are.”
The most difficult stories to write, Bender said, are suicides, public deaths and deaths of young people.
He offers some advice for journalists.
“One thing that I think can help is making it clear to the people you’re trying to get a portrait of that person,” he said. “You’re not just writing about how they died.”
Bender also said editors should keep two ideas in mind when deciding what information to include: Is there a reason for the public to know and does this help the public understand?
The Daily Nebraskan’s initial story of Real’s death had more than 5,600 hits online, which makes it the most clicked story for the Daily Nebraskan this year. This is all the more reason to get the right information in the story.
If a reporter has covered a death and needs some help coping afterward, Poynter has some tips to help.
_By Eric Bertrand