Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You are the Editor ...

There was an interesting discussion in our newsroom today about how to deal with a story about a Leicester man who died after falling from a mountain and I'm interested in how people feel we should have reacted.

It reminded me of something that happened about 15 years ago when I was Editor of the South Wales Echo in Cardiff. One of our reporters had been to the Coroner's court in the city to cover the inquest into the death of a self-employed tiler who had died, along with a young apprentice who was the passenger in his van, when he crashed while speeding on one of the main roads into the city. The inquest was reasonably straight forward and we reported what we heard.

Two days later, the widow of the tiler asked if she could come to see me. Of course, I agreed and spent a harrowing hour listening to her telling me the other side of the story as she cried her eyes out and told me how unfair our report was. It wasn't inaccurate - she agreed that we had reported what was said in the court - but it wasn't fair because the court had looked only at the cause of the crash. It didn't tell the whole story of who her husband was or why he came to be speeding on that road, rather it left him looking like an idiot who risked his own life and that of a young lad while driving like a boy racer. Nobody in court mentioned that the young apprentice had been unemployed until her husband had taken him on and taught him a trade, that the boy thought the world of her husband who had treated him like a son. Nor did anyone explain that the reason that the tiler was speeding was because on his way to work that morning on a lucrative big contract on a major development in the city, the man had taken a phone call from an elderly widow who said that he had tiled her bathroom five years earlier and a tile had fallen off. He had turned the van round, driven the 15 miles to refit the tile and was, therefore, late for his contract. It doesn't excuse his speeding, but it does put it into context.

I asked the woman if she minded speaking to all my reporting staff so that they could hear the hurt that could be caused by an accurate report. She agreed and it was a difficult lesson for reporters.

More recently here in Leicester we have had the case of the teacher banned from teaching by the General Teaching Council - our article was an accurate report of what was said, but the reaction of parents and friends told us very quickly that the story was not fair and we have apologised and done what we can to put it right. For details see the interesting blog post by Ian Wishart, our education correspondent, on how he felt about what happened.

Today, we heard that a man from Leicester had died after falling from a mountain. We got the details - including the man's address - from the police where the accident happened and we went round to his home to talk to his family. Many people might be surprised to hear that families often welcome the local paper into their home at a time of tragedy, but this was not the case today. The family was adamant that they didn't want anything in the paper, not even a paragraph recording the fact of his death.

What would you do in this instance? The death happened in a public place, involved the emergency services and had been reported on a police website. All of my journalistic instincts say that we should publish.

But should we? The family rang the office later in the day again to ask that we don't publish anything. It is not quite the same as the two examples above, but it is about whether a perfectly accurate story would cause such hurt that we shouldn't publish.

What do you think? What would your response be?