Human Tragedy: More Than Headlines

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I could tell she was upset. And even though she was on the phone and I couldn't see her face, I could tell she was using a lot of self control to keep from saying something she would regret.

The article ran months ago, but she and her family were too angry at the time to call. It was March when her father's car went off the road on Highway 87 between Pine and Payson. The vehicle burst into flames and, despite rescue efforts, the man lost his life.

Back in the Payson Roundup office, the dispatcher's voice came over the scanner. Police, fire and ambulance sirens screamed passed us. A reporter grabbed his camera, a pen and a pad of paper and ran out the door after them.

When the phone rang this week and the woman told me her name, the same last name as her father, I immediately knew which article she was talking about.

I remember the day vividly. The reporter returned to the office and told me about the tragedy he had witnessed -- the loss of a life of a popular area resident. He showed me the photos he had -- some more graphic than others.

That day we spent a lot of time discussing what was appropriate to include in the story and which photos we would allow in the paper.

At the time, we thought we were being sensitive, but even with our self-censorship on the more harrowing details, the family still struggled with seeing their father's death on the front page of our newspaper.

During the woman's phone call, I sat quietly and listened to her arguments. To her, our coverage of the tragedy was wrapped as one into all the grief and anger she felt about the loss of her father.

When she asked me, "Why?" it sounded to me like a much bigger question than I could answer.

Since that phone call, members of the Roundup staff had several conversations about how we cover tragedy. That discussion was fortunate, because it prepared us for what followed.

This week, we were faced with telling the gruesome and tragic story of a Payson girl who died at the hands of her roommate.

In our hearts, we didn't want to tell the story at all. But that was not a choice.

Instead, we took it slowly, discussing every piece of the story along the way.

In a small town community newspaper the rules are different than the ones they teach in journalism school. The "report at all costs" comes with extra consideration. If I am writing for a large metropolitan newspaper, the question of a person's "feelings" about my story are going to pale in comparison with the readers it will attract.

At the Payson Roundup, the old adage, "If it bleeds it leads" goes out the window. Our news judgment is partnered with the knowledge that we will see the subjects of our articles at the grocery store or in line at Sawmill Theater.

The Roundup has a few rules about the way we cover personal tragedy.

  • We do not write about suicides unless they occur in a public place. If they happen in the home, they are a private affair.
  • We do not run photos of bodies or photos that are unnecessarily graphic. We are here to inform you, not shock you.
  • We always ask, "How would I want this written if it were about me?"

While some reporters can grow callous about the controversies they stir or the lives they hurt or help with a particular story, we do not have that luxury.

With that proximity to our readers, it would be easy to avoid writing about the deaths of those we care about.

It is painful. It is uncomfortable. But it is our job.

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 474-5251 ext. 115 or e-mail editor@payson.com.

See Related Story: Voices told him to kill roommate

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