Sensitivity is as important as truth

In August I attended the annual national convention of journalism educators in Baltimore. One evening, I had dinner with several journalism professors and students from around the country. During dinner, University of Montana professor Deni Elliott proposed an interesting way to impress upon budding reporters the power they have when they interview, investigate and publish. The discussion around the table was intense, and I e-mailed Elliott to ask her to clarify her position.
Elliott suggests “with beginning journalism students (or maybe all undergraduate level journalism students), the professor should get course approval from the Institutional Review Board, which regulates experimentation (including student projects) that use human subjects.” She supports this procedure “primarily to impress upon students, and their professors, if necessary, the fact that individuals are put at risk through reporting and publication.”
Review of human subjects at the University of Minnesota is part of the Research Subjects Protection Program. This program is intended to protect individuals upon whom research is conducted. Examples of research that has to be cleared through this program include anything from drawing blood or taking body tissue samples to conducting surveys to determine the level of subjects’ text comprehension.
Before reporters get up in arms, I don’t support Elliott’s proposal. At very least, it would be an administrative headache, and at worst, it’s a potentially serious infringement on both instructors’ and student reporters’ First Amendment rights. But Elliott’s suggestion stuck with me as illustrative of how much power journalists at all levels have over sources and readers — and how instructors and editors need to constantly remind reporters of that power and how not to abuse it.
In August, Nick Schultz, a University senior, died after being pushed down the stairs at Grandma’s. The suspects fled the scene.
The first Daily article about the death, “Suspects sought in student’s death,” (Sept. 21) written by Andrew Donohue, gave details about Schultz as a fraternity member, sports fan and loyal friend; the story also gave facts about the incident that led to his death. The follow-up article by Brian Close, “No charges to be filed in death at Grandma’s,” (Oct. 5) reported that no charges would be filed in Schultz’s death and noted that because there was no formal charge, Daily policy required that the suspects’ names not be published. This story led Michele Schultz, Nick’s mother, to write the Daily a letter. The Daily published her letter on Oct. 19.
In her letter, Schultz said although her son had been involved in a brawl at a fraternity party and had a drunken driving arrest on his record (which Close reported), the brawling charge was dropped (not reported); after the drunken driving charge, Nick and his friends were careful to take cabs or walk when they had been drinking (also not reported). Schultz also noted that although Nick’s reputation could be freely damaged by the Daily, the suspects were protected because they had not been charged with a crime. She added that her son had been a beloved member of the University community, and many would miss his presence.
Schultz then took the additional step of hand delivering to me at the Daily an envelope stuffed full of photocopies of notes and letters sent to Nick in the hospital and to the family after his death. Page after page relates how much he will be missed by co-workers, greek sisters and brothers, friends and others who knew him. She wanted me and others to know what kind of a person he was and how he affected the lives of those around him.
It would have been easy to nod sympathetically, give Schultz a hug and tell her how sorry we at the Daily were that she had been hurt by our coverage. Yes, I did that. It was the most painful moment of my job — talking to a grieving and tearful mother about her son’s death and the additional pain we caused her. But we owe Schultz and others whom we affect with our reporting both an acknowledgement that we understand the power of our publications and a vow to be sensitive to that power at all times.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, to which Daily reporters and editors are expected to adhere, has a section entitled “Minimize Harm.” In that section reporters are encouraged to “recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort” and to “show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” Good advice.
In the same section, the code recommends that reporters “be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.” Also good advice, for several reasons: A newspaper should be wary of trying and convicting a suspect in its pages, and the paper could also be held legally liable for damaging someone’s reputation without cause.
In Nick Schultz’s case, these recommendations came into conflict. Close could be considered to be insensitive because he adhered to Daily policy, which doesn’t allow the release of suspect’s names unless the withholding puts the public in danger. Because there are sometimes legal ramifications to naming a suspect before he or she is charged, this policy is strictly enforced. Not so with sensitivity issues, probably because they are harder to identify, and reporters are less trained to identify them. Journalism courses generally promote hard-hitting investigation. And reporters might get so caught up in getting true information — spelling names and titles right, making sure dates and events check out — that sensitivity issues are forgotten.
Schultz was careful to tell me that overall she was pleased with Daily coverage. Close’s story, she said, was carefully balanced, but as a result, her son’s police record could be publicized while his assailant would not be identified in any way.
Although I think, in this case, Close could have been more sensitive to the family of Nick Schultz and he certainly should have noted the brawling charge was dropped, I find it hard to censure him when he was following policy. And I am hard pressed to recommend what he could have said in his article that would have been more sensitive without compromising essential information. It might have been difficult to approach Schultz for quotes about her son, for example, though perhaps at the time the follow-up story ran she would have been willing to provide positive details about Nick’s life.
This case is a sobering reminder that reporters must always keep in mind the impact their stories might have upon not only readers but sources and those close-to-newsworthy individuals. Deni Elliott’s recommendation reminds us of the power that journalists at all levels have both to do great harm and to do great good. Of course, we always strive for the latter, but we have to keep in mind the constant and often hidden potential for the former.

Genelle Belmas’ column appears every other Friday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.