Covering Grief and Tragedy are the Hardest Parts of Reporting
Here's an explanation of how Northville Patch covered some of the most sensitive stories since we began.
Covering tragedy is not my favorite part of this job. In fact, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a journalist to say that it is.
In the past week or so, I’ve had my share of sensitive news to cover in the Northville area – from the horrible killing of two Northville students and their mother in a murder-suicide to a fire that nearly destroyed a township family’s home to a, luckily, false alarm gun scare at Northville High School.
None of these things is particularly easy to cover, and there is a certain code of ethics that governs most journalists’ conduct when reporting tragedy or grief. Northville Patch has not been around that long. We launched at the end of November. I feel that it is important for you, the reader, to know what guides my journalistic decision-making: the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
One of the main canons in this reporter’s code of ethics is to “Minimize Harm.” That means minimizing harm to sources, individuals being covered in a story, people potentially affected by a story and the like.
I’d like to share a few with you from the SPJ Web site, followed by how we tried to implement them at Northville Patch:
- “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.”
- "Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.”
- “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”
- “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
The best example to illustrate how we’ve aimed to adhere to these principles is from our coverage of the murder-suicide of the Schons family of Novi. Northville Patch was interested in covering the story because the two boys, Tynan and Camden, were Northville Public Schools students.
As the reporter and editor on this story, I can assure you that there were several conversations with my editors and reporters. In the spirit of full disclosure – another professional canon – we talked about how to cover the story, whom to contact, which events to cover following the deaths and a slew of other ethical questions.
When classes resumed Monday, I decided not to go to the school, though I learned later that no media access had been granted to any news outlet anyway. I had been in contact with district administrators during the weekend and had the details I needed at the time to keep the community informed – which is my primary goal as a journalist.
While it would have been “exclusive detail” to know what was going on at Thornton Creek Elementary School on the students' first day back since the killings, I ultimately decided it wasn’t necessary. These were elementary school students involved. If they were high school students, it might have been different, but Tynan and Camden’s classmates were preschool and first-grade children. My reasoning was that they were too young to be put in a position of dealing with the media on top of their grief.
Another event we did not cover was the funeral service. The family had requested that it remain private. It is their right to grieve privately, and we respect that. With the help of the Brighton Patch, we put together a story before the funeral and ran an obituary written by Brighton’s local editor, Wensdy Von Buskirk.
While I don’t have children of my own, I have many small relatives around the ages of Tynan and Camden. When I cover heartbreaking stories like this, I reach deep into the most empathetic part of me to try to put myself in the shoes of the people we are covering.
In this case, I, like all of you, could not fathom how this could happen. But I tried to treat our reporting with the utmost responsibility and respect.
I live in Northville Township. I do most of my shopping and working around here, too. A day seldom goes by that I don’t bump into someone whom we have covered or worked with. I love that. And it is a constant reminder of my obligation to cover this community thoroughly, serving residents’ right to know, while balancing the rights of private citizens to keep private what they desire, especially in times of great tragedy.
It is my hope that these principles were conveyed throughout our reporting at Northville Patch in the past week and that they remain apparent in our future coverage as well.