Critical Thinking: Should a newspaper hold back news if it’s emotionally harmful to its staff?

Critical Thinking: Should a newspaper hold back news if it's emotionally harmful to its staff?

When a mass shooting took place near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus in May, the school’s university-funded newspaper, The Bottom Line, decided not to immediately publish news about the shooting to “minimize the emotional harm” to its staff. Was the newspaper right in holding back or should it have reported the news?

Tyler Eagle, 23, senior, Columbia College (Chicago)

Eagle is a journalism major concentrating in news reporting and writing and a gender studies minor. He serves as the editor-in-chief of the school’s award-winning newspaper, The Columbia Chronicle, and is an active member of his campus’ Society of Professional Journalists chapter. 

Journalism is an emotionally fraught profession, particularly because journalists are often thrust into coverage that impacts them as much as their readers. However, it is a journalist’s duty to forge ahead in the face of such adversity and report the news regardless of personal feelings.

While UC Santa Barbara’s student newspaper decision to withhold coverage in deference to its staff’s mental well-being is emotionally admirable, the paper made an error in judgment by not immediately posting and updating a story with details about the shooting as they emerged.

As a campus newspaper, The Bottom Line had a responsibility to provide coverage and information regarding the shooting to its readers—the majority of whom are most likely UC Santa Barbara students and staff.

Often campus newspapers are the sole source of independent news at colleges and have the ability to create longstanding relationships that garner readers’ trust. When newspapers do not fulfill their obligation to their readers, they damage that relationship and alienate consumers.

If nothing else, students should have been able to go to the paper affiliated with their college and get some form of confirmation that there was a shooting emergency occurring and that there had been fatalities. By the time The Bottom Line began its coverage, the story had been reported by other media and readers were able to get news from those outlets.

Furthermore, The Bottom Line has an obligation to prepare its reporters for the post-grad journalism world. Professional outlets would expect their staffs to do their jobs as journalists and cover a developing tragedy.

It seems like The Bottom Line missed an opportunity to educate its staff about covering profoundly disturbing breaking news—skills every news reporter needs— and did a disservice to those who work for the paper and those who read it.

Cassandra Day, 46, managing editor, Middletown (Conn.) Press
Day has been managing editor of the Middletown Press, a small daily newspaper and online news site in central Connecticut, since February 2014. Most recently, she was the editor of Middletown Patch and features editor at the Middletown Press for 13 years prior. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism from Central Connecticut State University.

While I understand the delicate issue of reporting accurately on senseless tragedies such as mass shootings, The Bottom Line is likely one of the first sources of information students and perhaps parents will seek out.

Using Twitter as a platform to report on the situation immediately was an effective use of social media, considering students, parents and faculty will check their stream for any news.

Publishing a short story online with a neutral photo such as first responders and the headline, “Shooting reported on campus,” along with a “check back for updates” editor’s note would suffice in the first few hours of conflicting accounts filtering in.

It’s important to remember reporters at a university newspaper are students first and even the most seasoned journalists will eventually experience some form of post-traumatic stress after the initial drive to report wanes. The editorial published two days after the shooting details why staff chose not to cover the massacre, “before we are journalists, we are Gauchos …”

Still, precisely because The Bottom Line can offer sensitive reportage amid a certain media storm and a preponderance of speculation and misinformation, I believe it’s important for the university’s paper of record to offer competent, accurate reporting from the scene in a timely manner.

While some in the media praised the university’s independent paper The Daily Nexus for its reportage, others, like CalBuzz admonished (The Bottom Line) staff for “abandoning the field,” considering many of these students may go on to careers in journalism.

The latter is something to carefully consider in hindsight as such senseless acts of violence continue across the country and the debate over gun control and mental illness rages on.

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Published: August 20, 2014

One thought on “Critical Thinking: Should a newspaper hold back news if it’s emotionally harmful to its staff?

  • August 22, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Reporting/editing is a tough job but readers/viewers depend on our skills to cover and write news events, whether personally troubling or not. Once we start withholding coverage for personal, emotional reasons, those we serve will have increasingly less confidence in the professionalism and objectivity of our product.



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