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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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The front-page wraparound of Tuesday’s New York Daily News shows a photograph that was shot by Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki after the explosions at the Boston Marathon. The photo was manipulated by the Daily News so that it did not show the open leg wound that the woman in black in the background had suffered from the explosion. (NYT)
The front-page wraparound of Tuesday’s New York Daily News shows a photograph that was shot by Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki after the explosions at the Boston Marathon. The photo was manipulated by the Daily News so that it did not show the open leg wound that the woman in black in the background had suffered from the explosion. (NYT)

Public Editor: In the chaos of tragedy, the media are doing better Add to ...

When events such as the Boston bombings or the bullying and death of Rehtaeh Parsons are in the news, readers expect the media to act for them: to ask the questions they would ask, to help them understand and to show, especially with the bombings, exactly what happened.

What both events require is a balancing act between being unflinching chroniclers of the horrible events of history and being sensitive to the people caught in the chaotic whirlwind of breaking news. In my view, the North American media have been doing a better job in the past months of finding the right balance.

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With the photos of the Boston bombings, editors must choose images that demonstrate terror without resorting to those containing gratuitous depictions of carnage. The question to ask is: Is this photograph essential for telling readers what happened, or is it just there for shock value? In the mainstream media, you’ve seen disturbing images, but they were necessary to understand the terror inflicted by the bombing. They included blood on sidewalks and shocked victims with obvious injuries. But you probably didn’t want to see severed limbs up close, and the media generally avoided displaying those shots.

You notice, too, a growing respect for the individual. The families of the victims of the Boston bombings decided how they want to handle being in the news. Early in the week, Martin Richard’s father offered a statement and Krystle Campbell’s mother spoke to reporters; on Friday, the relatives of Lu Lingzi released a statement. Even though much more information is known about these people and background information is easily found these days, the media have respected the families’ wishes.

Turning to the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia this month, similar concerns for the family have prevailed. While many suicides are not covered by the media, what made this one newsworthy were the allegations of sexual assault followed by unrelenting bullying and the fact that her family wanted to share their grief in order to shine a spotlight on cyber-bullying.

“Everyone has a different response to grief, and there is no research to tell us whether a public or private response is more helpful to the individual,” Jitender Sareen, a University of Manitoba psychiatry professor and the director of research and anxiety services, said in a telephone interview. While some people want to draw attention to the issues around a death, such as bullying, others need a much smaller circle in which to grieve. He points to a guide by the British charity group Samaritans for reporters when dealing with the bereaved http://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines/advice-media-working-bereaved that suggests, among other things, the media should be sensitive to the fact that people dealing with a tragedy are in shock. Those people should not be rushed or interrupted, and they may not be in a state to give too many details accurately. In the case of a suicide, Dr. Sareen added, the media should avoid oversimplifying the cause.

“If someone grieving wants to talk to the media, the reporters should be aware of those guidelines and write the story in a way that can be helpful for the reader and minimize the risk of suicide contagion,” Dr. Sareen said, referring in this case to the Canadian Psychiatric Association guidelines for reporting on suicide. http://publications.cpa-apc.org/media.php?mid=733

While respecting the families, however, it is important to put a face on the tragedy to counterbalance the face of the perpetrators. As the police investigation into the Boston bombings continues, I believe the media will do better by keeping a focus on the victims. This tack was taken in two other recent cases: one in Canada and one in the United States. When Michael Rafferty was tried and convicted in the death of Victoria Stafford, the media did a good job of keeping the attention on Tori. Similarly, in the Newtown, Conn., shootings, the media focused much more attention on the 20 children and six adults killed at the school than on the shooter.

This is not to say the media have done no wrong. Far from it. Earlier this week, for example, the New York Post published a picture of two innocent bystanders, calling them “bag men” when they weren’t even suspects.

Mistakes are made in the rush to be first, but what is commendable is the media’s new attempt to focus on victims. This shift in coverage has happened in large part because organizations are responding to what they hear from readers and viewers: that they/you don’t want the accused to be the centre of attention. These are tricky and very sensitive decisions that news editors make. I would be interested to know what you think about whether the media in general, and The Globe and Mail in particular, are finding the right balance. Please send me an e-mail at publiceditor@globeandmail.com if you want to share your views.

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

 

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