Editorial: Decency in Journalism

decency in journalism

Many years ago, about 10 or so, I was working for a little newspaper in Mountain Home, Idaho. A woman had been killed, her body parts found in different areas of the crime scene.  It was a horrific and rare murder and because it was an Air Force area, many of the people were not from Idaho. When something like that occurred, the families looked to us for the story.

The editor at that time chose to describe where the different body parts were found and how she had come to be decapitated by the vehicle used to kill her. He didn’t have to get graphic to paint a horrific picture. It was horrific all by itself.

And that’s when the letters came.

Family members of the murdered woman were horrified by the story. Police had already told them the details of the murder, but to have it out in the paper like that. To relive it every time they wanted to read updates on the case – this was even before it went to trial.

I believe the courtroom is the only place for such horrific details.

A few years ago I read a news story about a little boy who was kidnapped, molested and murdered. It still makes me nauseated. I had to stop reading the story as they went into gruesome detail.

I understand some journalists feel they are doing the community right by giving them every detail they can get their hands on. But I don’t believe that is our job as journalists. We can make an emotional story without engraving the horrific details in your head. Isn’t the world evil enough? Isn’t the news depressing enough?

If I tell you that someone was murdered in his or her bedroom, the suspect then found with a gunshot wound to the head in the kitchen and that the victim was decapitated – is that not enough detail for you?

Do I need to tell you that the suspect used a double edge knife that left two dagger-like sharp edges in the victim; that the victim was cut in these certain areas of the body and the body parts were found in these certain rooms of the home? (Obviously a made up story).

You see, I’m not a lawyer, you are not a jury and the media is not a courtroom.

At St. George News we believe in the right to privacy. We believe in decency. We believe in having respect. We believe in not victimizing the families further. If you want the hard-to-swallow details, you either should attend the trial, or read your news elsewhere. We are not always perfect, but our reporters try harder than any other staff I have worked with.

Our role as journalists is to provide a balance to government, to inform the community and to be a voice for those who cannot be heard. We are not perfect, but we have standards that we will not bend.

As most major newspapers, we have learned the hard way and have now adopted the policy that we do not release the name of suspects until they have been formally charged except in high-profile federal cases where the name has already been released or when the crime committed is a sexual act. Arrest does not equal guilt. You can find the arrest information on our newspaper site, but that does not mean that we will parade their mug shot next to the story to humiliate someone who may not even be guilty of the crime they are accused.

Some disagree with us. Some don’t. Be we have chosen to take the high road and I hope you chose to do this with us.

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  • Laura June 27, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    I like your standards and decency. Now we only need to have you writing in proper sentences.

    • Jen Watkins June 28, 2011 at 5:06 am

      Now you’re asking for too much, don’t ya think? 😉

      I know it’s not my strongest area, but I think we are doing well – especially considering where we started.

  • Bev Lowe June 27, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Thank you…

  • just curious June 28, 2011 at 6:50 am

    did you major in journalism? or take any journalism classes?

    • Jen Watkins June 28, 2011 at 7:39 am

      I did. It’s fine if you want to focus on my weak areas, but I think you might be missing the point.

  • just curious June 28, 2011 at 7:50 am

    i don’t think i am missing the point. i rarely see details in stories like the examples you’ve pointed out because the police do not typically release that information in case there is a trail.

  • just curious June 28, 2011 at 8:06 am

    *trial* – sorry

  • Tina June 28, 2011 at 8:10 am

    I think this is a great standard to set, we have become a society of people that feed on gruesome details and graphic images, a little standard and decency towards the victims goes along way and also shows you to be a decent human being and not a bottom feeder which I personally feel that some journalist can be, I for one love to read your news items, it gives me just enough details to know what is going on around with me, I don’t need to know the gruesome details I can figure that out for myself. Keep up the good work.

  • Laura June 28, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Yes, you are right! You are getting better, go on improving. As i say to my students, just review and read aloud what you have written before hitting the submit button!! and no, I”m not missing the point of your article. Indeed I think and share you same concern about macabre details that we don”t need! Thanks!

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