Press-Republican

June 11, 2011

Reporting on youth crimes


Press-Republican

---- — The death of Karen Bourdon on May 1, allegedly at the hands of her 14-year-old son, raised a number of ethical questions in our newsroom.

When people have asked, over the years, what the hardest part of my job is, the answer has always been: Dealing with all the ethical issues that come up.

Almost every week, something difficult needs to be decided. Do we publish an unusual arrest even though it is a misdemeanor and we normally report only felonies? Do we allow an anonymous source in a story? Should a certain story run on Page 1 or an inside page?

There are no easy answers for most of these types of questions. We try to think about our responsibility to inform the community, our sensitivity to the people affected by news, our past history of dealing with a similar issue.

The Bourdon murder raised several tricky questions. Obviously, a murder is major news and must be reported. But this one involved a young teen, Dilan Clark.

Reporting on crimes by youths is always difficult. We are well aware that the record of their arrests and any conviction will stay with them for life.

We also know their brains are not fully formed, as has been confirmed in a number of studies, and therefore they aren't always at the top of their game when making decisions about risky behavior.

A violent crime perpetrated by a child is rare around here, the most notorious being the stabbing of 10-year-old Andrew Pitkin by Michael Murphy, his 14-year-old neighbor in Valcour, back in April 1984. Murphy is now 40 and still in prison. It is a story we have returned to many times as he goes before the Parole Board.

When we report on a teen involved in a high-profile crime, we will be criticized no matter how we play the story. Some people don't think it should even be in the paper.

But, murder goes on A1, regardless of who is involved. We see, on average, about one a year in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, so it is definitely notable news. But when it is a child, do we use a photo? What details do we report?

We had a picture of Dilan being brought into court the day of his mother's death. He looked so young in the photo, we all remarked, staring ahead with his bangs in his eyes.

We used the picture with the Page 1 story but smaller than we normally would. We ran a small head shot of him with the next day's story but decided we wouldn't use his picture with the next couple of articles.

It just didn't feel right to keep putting his picture on every story, as we usually do with an adult murder suspect.

The bigger question was whether to identify him as being adopted. Other local media jumped right on it, with headlines and broadcast promos that spoke about "adoptive son charged with murder."

But there was no indication that his being adopted was any factor in the situation.

It has bothered me for years to see irrelevant references to the adoptive status of people in the news media, such as when comedian Jack Benny died and national stories reported he was survived by his adopted daughter.

I cringe when I see the words "real mother" used in articles instead of birth mother. Every journalist should know better than that.

I am clued in to the sensitivity of this issue because several of my nieces and nephews are adopted, and I know blood does not make a family.

The news editor, Suzanne Moore; the reporter on the story, Denise Raymo; and I talked about how to handle the reference to Dilan's background. Journalists never want to leave out pertinent information, but was it pertinent?

We ran the initial story of the Constable woman's death and her son's arrest without any reference to his adoption.

It flowed naturally into the followup story, when School Superintendent Wayne Walbridge and family friend mentioned it in an aside.

"There wasn't a more loving family," he added.

There has been no movement in the case in weeks as evaluations and court documents are prepared.

But it will be back in the news soon — with more difficult decisions to make as we aim for complete but sensitive coverage.

Email Lois Clermont at: lclermont@pressrepublican.com