Is there a 'right' way to report horrific news?

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • February 16, 2008 - 4:20 PM

Veteran newspaper editors tend to become somewhat hardened to stories about man's inhumanity to man. The war in Iraq, murders over drug deals, violent domestic disputes -- they are a staple of any news organization's daily reporting.

Stories about man's inhumanity to child -- also all too common -- are a different matter. The details are sometimes so horrific that they leave even the most experienced editors ashen and grim -- and struggling with how best to share the news with readers. At least three such stories have unfolded over the past year or so in our newsroom. One involved a girl forced to sit in scalding water. Another detailed how a teenage mother gave birth to her baby in a laundry room, then stabbed it more than 100 times when she saw the newborn's finger move. Last week, we started chasing the story of 4-year-old Demond Reed, who was found dead, stuffed inside a black plastic garbage bag and dumped in a closet in a north Minneapolis home. We had played the story, as it unfolded, on the front page both Monday and Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, I walked over to the usual midafternoon update meeting to find Colleen Stoxen, our indefatigable 1A editor, looking miserable and unable to even muster a smile. She laid out the latest details of the case: Demond's caretaker had forced her own 4-year-old and 6-year-old sons to hold the boy down while she beat him repeatedly. Her 11-year-old daughter also watched, and later reported the details to police. "Those kids will have to live with this the rest of their lives," said Stoxen, who has three kids of her own.

Then came the question of how to play the story, a question on which reasonable editors can disagree. We knew this case had been of huge interest to the community; it had gotten more than 100,000 hits in just one day on our website. But how much did we want to rub readers' noses in these latest details?

We blinked.

We decided that two days on page 1 was enough, and played the most sensational details of the story on page 1B the following day with a headline that said, "Children tell police of scene no child should ever witness." We hinted at the latest details in a promo on page 1. Our competitors across the river at the Pioneer Press blew out the details in a big page 1 display and walked readers step by step through the developments.

This wasn't the first time we differed in our treatment of the worst child abuse cases. Last April, when we learned that a 17-year-old had been charged with killing her newborn daughter, the Pioneer Press stripped the story across the front page as we did, but wrote a much more detailed headline that left little to the imagination. We deliberately crafted a more subdued headline. We wanted to give readers the news, but in a way that wouldn't make them recoil in horror before they had eaten their breakfast.

On Wednesday of this week, as we critiqued the daily paper, business editor Eric Wieffering brought up the differences in the treatment of the Demond Reed story. He wasn't involved in the decision the previous evening, but landed on the side of treating readers more gently simply because the details were so grisly.

Which was the right approach? These types of disparate treatments are as old as tabloid wars, and I'm not sure there's a right or a wrong answer. In our newsroom, each story is discussed in detail on a case-by-case basis, weighing the news value, readers' interest and the makeup of the rest of the page that day.

At times, however, I think that perhaps we are too staid or patronizing in our approach to the toughest news stories. In the end, the answer should be: What makes for the most interesting, compelling paper for our readers?

We'd love to hear what you think when it comes to reporting these stories. You can write us at 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488 or weigh in on the editor's blog at

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