Saturday, April 14, 2007

Good news, bad judgment

What's "news" is all too often bad. Political corruption, rising taxes, murders, fatal car accidents, suicides — you name it. At the editor's desk in the office of any community newspaper, you see it all. Sometimes, it's hard to decide what to do with some of the stuff that lands in your e-mail in-box or comes in across the fax machine. And contrary to popular opinion about modern-day media, we do give these things long, hard thought. Every story and picture we print can have an effect — sometimes a really big one — on somebody in our community, be it a neighbor, a member of our church congregation, the friend of a friend, or a total stranger. We recognize this and take very seriously our duty to be accurate and fair — and sensitive.

Last year, at the National Newspaper Association conference in Milwaukee, I picked up a copy of a book whose title intrigued me, "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper," by Jim Pumarlo. It's an instructive little handbook on best practices for small-town-newspaper editors faced with tough decisions about whether and/or how to report on difficult events and circumstances. I've read and reread it, taking away and putting into practice some key points about using good judgment when reporting bad news close to home.

Here are the basics. Establish clear policies about reporting this kind of news — including reporting suicides or suspensions of high school athletes, for example, or publishing photos of fatal car accidents. Be aware of the effect your news reporting may have on people's lives, and act with appropriate care in researching, reporting and writing sensitive stories. Explain your newsroom decisions to your paper's readers.

Mr. Pumarlo was a workshop presenter at the N.Y. Press Association convention two weeks ago — you know, the convention where the Sun was crowned top weekly newspaper in the state, something I was gloating about in this space last week? I eagerly took advantage of the opportunity to hear him speak about "bad news and good judgment."

Then I came home to SunLand and blew it. Big time.

In my zeal to show off how well the Sun did in the Press Association's 2006 Better Newspaper Contest, I violated some basic principles when I decided to reprint a photo of a fatal car crash originally published Sept. 15, 2006. The scene depicted in the photo — a very unusual single-car accident in which a car became airborne and crashed into the second story of a garden apartment building in Coram, killing the driver — was news when it happened, and, as such, we were correct to print it at the time.

We reprinted it last week just to show a photo that won a first place award for "spot news" in the contest. The scene it depicted was no longer news; reprinting it simply to show our readers what won the Sun a photography award in the contest was, in a word, wrong.

I soon heard from relatives of Vincent Pontillo, the crash victim, decrying my decision to reprint that photo. A letter from the sister of Mr. Pontillo, Laura Kraus-Johnson, appears on page 8. Ms. Kraus-Johnson wrote to me to express her dismay and disappointment; I asked her permission to print the letter, because I believe its message is important and I believe my action warrants a public apology to Ms. Kraus-Johnson and the rest of Mr. Pontillo's family.

Reprinting that photo demonstrated insensitivity and poor judgment on my part. I am, as I've expressed to Mr. Pontillo's family members, deeply sorry.

The photograph — a picture the contest judges called "amazing" and "spectacular" — depicted a horrific accident that took the life of a 43-year-old Mount Sinai man. He was a gentle, family-oriented guy with a great sense of humor, his sister told me this week. His tragic death was a life-altering event for his mother and four siblings, his longtime girlfriend, Cathy, his seven nieces and nephews, and large extended family. He was, Ms. Kraus-Johnson said, an all-around good guy, loved by many.

I'll never know Mr. Pontillo, of course. But I have a sense of what he was like from my brief encounter with his older sister — not just by her words, but by her behavior. She didn't want to berate or reprimand me; she only wanted me to understand how she felt. At the same time, she understood and accepted how badly I felt about it. She taught me a lesson in sensitivity — and forgiveness — hard to glean from any book, and one I'll not soon forget.

First printed in The North Shore Sun, April 13, 2007


Natasha said...

Great post Denise!

I remember when Newsday printed a close-up photo of someone jumping out of the Twin Towers on 9-11. I was horrified and so angered by what i saw. I thought... "why dont you just dig a little deeper and stomp on the souls of people who are already rock bottom?" Even for people like me who did not lose a loved one, who still sat night after night in front of the television trying to find reasoning behind it all. To see that photo printed in Newsday was a slap in the face and true testament to their bad judgement and lack of sensitivity.

Ceil said...

Hi Denise - This is why I admire you and your journalistic abilities.
There are times, we all make poor judgement calls. We are human.
You showed humility and substance by apologizing to the family. The family forgave its time to forgive yourself and move on.

Anonymous said...

About that ice rinx, at the school our community got together and bought some pvc pipes from a company in canada farley brothers and built our own porta rinx! Not only are portable rinx systems good for schools but great for neighborhoods too. Our portarinx kit came ready to go this Farley Brothers company has things down to a science, although our pucks sometimes go flying off the ice rinx surface; one board member found a company Nice Rinx that makes porta rinx too, theres uses brackets and wood and no chasing the puck! These things are inexpensive to make the porta rinx ice and go system by Farley is by far the cheapest we have found just 300-400 bucks to get going with a good size rinx!

Dave Black said...

Watch out there is some guy online jumping on people's posts and claiming to have invented Porta Rinx LOL

I cant believe how slimey some people are BE CAREFUL there is this guy Renzelo in Vermont that claims to have invented the name Porta Rinx I only know about him because he jumped all over a post I made to a web discussion about porta rinx kits.

When I checked out this Renzello guys website he has this big "web warning" on his site claiming someone is "slandering" his product name and claiming he is the only porta rinx dealer on the planet and that he has been doing it for 10 years. What a joke!

I made a nice post regarding the prota rinx our family has been building since 1971 and this guy Renzelli from Montpeleir Vermont snaps back challenging my post.

We all just want to "Warn People" not to get ripped off and scammed by the Vermont USA company run by this Damien Renzelle. This guy did not "invent" porta rinx and it looks like he does nothing more than repackage the porta rinx PVC kit sold in magazines but this guy takes a 200 dollar rink and resells it for two thousand dollars!

Here is a real web warning I googled this guys name :"Damian J. Renzello" and I found this "Fraud Against the Government is Rampant in Vermont According to Court Documents" I hadnt read the whole thing but would guess this guy who claims to have invented porta rinx has been ripping off more than just your average hockey family claiming to have invented porta rinx The article says Renzello deliberately falsified some documents to defraud the Unted States Judicary! This has got to be the same joker that is postin stuff on my posts. The article also tells that Renzelo has been in many lawsuits and even said the Vermont Attorney General took action against him for "violation of the Consumer Fraud Act" and something about him having "deceived consumers".

Don't get taken by this Renzello character nor believe his posts. Just Google him and the name porta rinx and you will find many companies sellling the same rinx for thousands of dollars less.

If anyone wants help building their own porta rinx just email me I am more than happy to help.

Damian Renzello said...

FYI - This guy is slandering my good name and business. Do not believe his hype, he is full of nothing but BS, check out my web site check out waybackmachine, my web site goes back almost 7 years, you can also check out my letters from past customers, as well as news articles from almost 11 years ago, here is a direct link to my web site,
I started from nothing 11 years ago, it is a sin for this so called David Black to be slandering my good name and business, I have worked 10, going 11 hard years building my Porta-Rinx name and buisness, David you are the slime bag! May the good lord repay you ... 10 times fold, so let it be written so let the 10 time fold begin!
To the rest of you, have a safe and fun ice skating season, enjoy the holidays,
PS to whom this may concern, when you get a minute give me a call regarding these comments made by David Black 802 479-1880 Thank you, Sincerely yours, Damian J. Renzello Inventor/Entrepreneur

Porta Rinx said...

Damian Renzello is a rip-off artist ex-con stop this crook!

Anonymous said...

The author of this report is Mike Nelson, he has done this same thing to a judge in Vermont, and he has been sued several times because of this. The statements about Damian are totally false I know him personally that is defiantly not his picture. He has never come under investigation with the Attorney general of the state of Vermont. These things are very easy to look up, we have a sex registry and he is not listed and like I stated before that is not even a picture of him. Now onto the author of this article he knows this is complete bull EVERY bit of it, this Mike Nelson is not allowed in Montpelier Superior Court or Norwich University, he has been sued before and had a court order not to post these things, so Mike moved out of Vermont and continues writing these bogus claims against people that he feels in his mind have "done him wrong" to include the Vermont judge that presided over his case in which he did not rule in his favor.