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