Where do you draw the line?
At what point does reporting go over the edge into sensationalism?
And when does the public's "right to know" conflict with putting out a newspaper that parents can leave on the kitchen table without a brown-paper wrapper?
Those kinds of questions have arisen over coverage of the killing of James J. Mack, a 17-year-old Buffalo Traditional High School student. Certainly the crime qualifies as one of the grisliest in recent memory.
Consider the elements: Five other young people are suspects in Mack's stabbing, strangling and burning. He also was sexually assaulted. The methods, police believe, amount to torture. And the key witness, who identified himself as the victim's lover, is a transvestite.
Reporter Gene Warner, one of the primary reporters on the story, has thought seriously about the issues raised in covering such a crime.
Warner -- a parent himself, a former high school teacher, and a talented and conscientious reporter who has covered crime news for many years -- is in a good position to offer some reflections.
The standard he uses when deciding what details to include in a crime story is a simple question to himself: "Is it gratuitous?"
"You have to put yourself in the shoes of the mother of that kid," Warner says. She has already been through the worst thing that can happen to a parent, he notes. Now the media are spilling out the excruciating details.
"Our job is to shine light on the worst atrocities that occur," he notes. "Sometimes we have to hurt people. But when is it gratuitous?"
Warner isn't happy with all the decisions made by his editors in publishing the Mack stories. Was the witness' being a transvestite relevant to the early stories? He doesn't think so. After all, police have insisted that they don't see this as a hate crime like the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. And he thinks the graphic recounting of the sexual assault and the reporting of a rumor (for the purpose of correcting it) went too far.
On balance, though, he doesn't think The News sensationalized the case.
I can tell you that all of those decisions were discussed and debated every step of the way. And that there's still plenty of disagreement on some points -- but also a general feeling that the paper acted responsibly.
Readers, too, have widely varying opinions about our coverage.
They focus mostly on last Sunday's lengthy front-page story -- skillfully reported and written by Lou Michel, Emma Sapong and Sandra Tan -- which investigated the background of each of the five suspects.
The story portrayed these young people as society's throwaways. Each had a criminal record; some may have been sexually abused in childhood; all had wandered from one residence to another.
One reader was disgusted by what she saw as a sympathetic treatment of them in the story: "The article successfully turned five ruthless, vicious killers into 'victims.' If every child that has had a difficult upbringing went out and committed such a sickening act, we would all be in a great deal of trouble. . . . They are sick human beings that have no place in society."
Another reader had the opposite reaction: "Given the horror of the crime, the reported lack of remorse, it would have been very easy to further demonize these five, but that's not what your reporters did. . . . They disturbed us by presenting what they could about the miserable lives of these five arrested for the crime: a lifetime pattern of parental neglect and societal indifference."
Underlying all of this discussion is the newspaper's role in getting the truth out as best it can. It's not a perfect process, and sometimes we fail at it. Sometimes the truth (or, to put it in less lofty terms, the facts) hurts more than it helps.
For every story that results in a new way to help troubled teens or in a Megan's Law to protect kids from sexual predators, there's another that rips at a family's fabric or scars an individual's reputation.
We can't know that in advance (or maybe ever), and we can't always let that rule the day. But we can care, and it's safe to say that we do.
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