March 19, 2011

Column: Decisions made more difficult by Internet


---- — One of the many difficult decisions we have to make at the Press-Republican is when to publish the name of someone who dies in an accident or fire.

Reporters are sometimes called "ambulance chasers," but that implies we take some kind of glee in going to accident scenes. I still remember the first fatal accident I covered. I hadn't been on the job long and was a reporter Monday through Thursday and the photographer on Sundays.

As soon as I arrived at the accident, I could tell it wasn't good. The car was mangled, and EMTs were covering up the man they had extricated.

After he was loaded into an ambulance, I started taking pictures — we don't use photos of bodies. When I was done, I walked to a nearby house to call work — no cell phones then — to tell them it was a fatality. The whole way back to the office, I was fighting tears. I couldn't stop thinking about the man's family getting such shocking news.

It never got any easier over the years to hear about a serious accident. We all have families, so we all know the heartbreak ahead for someone. But we have a job to do — to tell people the major news of the North Country.

The Internet has changed so much for our newsroom. While we used to have no recourse for sharing news other than to wait until the next morning's paper, we now regularly publish stories throughout the day on our website. This has presented many opportunities, as we can get articles and stories online within minutes of news happening. But it has also brought new challenges.

Just recently, we covered a fire in Schuyler Falls. Once Fire Control started calling in numerous fire departments, we dispatched a reporter and photographer and started getting together an online article about the fire, which included the address. We had no idea a death was involved; fire fatalities are rare.

When the reporter arrived, relatives were already at the house, and he learned from them that a man had died. He called the paper to report in, and we updated the online article to say it was a fatality. We didn't use the name, even though we knew it, because we knew only a few family members had been informed at that point.

But we quickly realized that by listing the exact address, we would be revealing the name to some people. So we revised the article again to remove the address.

Later that afternoon, our reporter was told by a relative that the close family members knew of the man's death. We still didn't put the name online immediately. I called Bureau of Criminal Investigation Capt. Robert LaFountain, who said "next of kin have been notified" and confirmed the name. We added it online.

That night, a relative called, very upset that we had the name online. She mentioned one elderly local relative who hadn't been told yet.

At that point, there wasn't much sense in removing the name. Word spreads quickly through small, close-knit communities so it was all over town. Besides, the victim's name had been online for hours by then, and police had issued a news release identifying him.

The reality is that the Internet has brought a new immediacy to news. Our readers expect to know what is happening as soon as we can tell them. If they drive by what looks like a bad accident or house fire, they will be checking online later to read about it.

It is easy to say, "How dare you publish news of a death online, before the newspaper is published." We get that criticism in our online comments section sometimes. But the Press-Republican is no longer just a print edition. In this fast-paced world of communication, we are also a website with breaking-news alerts and mobile subscriptions that send news right to your phone.

It's a difficult situation. We now have new challenges as we balance the demand for news with our sensitivity toward people we know are suffering, something we always try hard to do.