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Journalists perform balancing act when covering deaths

Clayton Real, on the left, was found dead in the Farmhouse fraternity last Friday.

Clayton Real, left, poses with Mrs. International 2014. Real was discovered dead in the Farmhouse fraternity Sept 5.

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

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  1. natasharausch
    September 18, 2014 at 8:02 am

    I agree with John Bender in that telling the public what might have happened is better than speculation. When the story broke and I was sitting at the breaking news desk, I called Steve Smith, the university news director. He informed me of everything he knew that happened. An hour later, he released the name of the student. As more information was released, I continued updating the story, as is the case with all breaking news stories.

    The farmhouse president finally replied with a press release. As told in the top of the story, I tried to give the audience a more human perspective of Real by adding his high school and his involvement in FFA. I used the quote from the president to explain his suspected cause of death, and directly underneath, I wrote the the cause would be confirmed once autopsy results were released.

    I see what you are saying in the sexual predator example. However, sexually preying on people and over-consuming alcohol underage are two completely different offenses; one is a felony and the other is a misdemeanor. In that case, being a sexual predator didn’t contribute to the person’s death, whereas the over-consumption could have.

    I think it was better to release the suspected cause of death than to have students speculating things such as suicide, or worse, because that could have been even more emotionally traumatizing to the parents.

    I thought the Poytner link at the end was a good add to the story. Helping journalists cope with tough stories is definitely needed!

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