Star Tribune Editor: With the darkest news, we walk a fine line

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 6:32 PM

We can't avoid gruesome stories, but we always discuss whether the presentation crosses a boundary.

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Too often, it seems, we have to bring readers a crime story too horrible to comprehend. Friday's chilling theater killings in Colorado. The massacre at Virginia Tech five years ago. The Arizona shootings that maimed Gabby Gifford and killed six others.

Closer to home, we've covered the teenage girl who stabbed her baby multiple times, and the 17-year-old St. Louis Park boy who murdered two Iowa store clerks, then smiled for the cameras. More recently, there was the horrific story of a father who killed his own three daughters, slashing their throats, before calling their mother.

Although reporters and editors are accustomed to dealing with grim news, these stories shocked even the most seasoned of them. There are challenges in how to report the details without offending readers' sensibilities.

It's a fine line, because everyone reacts in different ways. We received complaints about some of the coverage of Virginia Tech, and about the photos we ran of the murderers in Arizona and Iowa. And last week, we received a number of phone calls and e-mails complaining about the July 13 headline "You can come home now ... I killed the kids," suggesting that we were deliberately trying to sensationalize the story and scare children and families.

The truth is that we constantly try to limit how much crime we report on, because it is often out of proportion with real life. Sometimes it's impossible to shield readers from the worst of humanity. Still, we always have a discussion about whether the presentation of a gruesome news story is sensational or a tragic representation of the facts.

In this case, we started reporting the story about the homicidal father on a Tuesday night, and as soon as I saw the sketchy outline of the news, I knew it was going to be awful. By Wednesday, we had dug out photos of the three young girls -- photos that exuded the sweetness and innocence of childhood.

It was enough to break an editor's heart, especially one with three girls of her own. Law-enforcement officials were mum about exactly how the girls had died, but if you read between the lines, you knew to brace yourself. The authorities said that it was hard on them, that their staffs were overwhelmed, that it was the worst some of them had ever seen.

We know that the story was gripping to readers, because our site registered many repeat visitors as we all tried to understand what had happened. In all, coverage of the murders generated about 400,000 page views, making it one of the most highly read stories of the month.

By Thursday, we were told that the father, Aaron Schaffhausen, had allegedly killed the girls in a particularly personal, physical and ugly manner. He had slashed the throats of Amara, 11, and Sophie, 8. Cecilia, 5, had been strangled, and her throat had been slashed.

We discussed the fact that we didn't want to talk about "slashing throats" in the printed headline because the imagery was repulsive, but perhaps we'd focus on the fact that the father had recently been fired from his job, an indication of his mind-set.

More details came out, recounting the story of how Schaffhausen showed up at his girls' home and how they all rushed happily to meet him. Eventually, the headline writers focused on the fathers' own chilling words, as relayed by court documents and law-enforcement officials. He called his ex-wife and told her. "You can come home now. ... I killed the kids." The other newspaper in the Twin Cities, the Pioneer Press, took a similar approach.

At the daily news huddle, knowing how grim the Schaffhausen story was, we decided to put the findings of the Penn State investigation inside, although any other day it would have been front-page news. We looked for some good news stories to balance a dark page, including a report about the rebound in the housing market; that story ran adjacent to the murder story.

But nothing we did with the selection of stories for the page could prevent the kick in the stomach that some readers, me included, felt upon reading that headline. Some mothers hid the papers from their children, and that's fine with me.

As journalists, we try to bring the world to our readers, in all its beauty and inhumanity, hope and despair. Sometimes, we show you that evil exists in the world and what that looks like, as much as it pains us all. You have to make your own calls about whether to read a given story or cover your eyes.

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's Editor.

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