Shoptalk: Death in the Family

By: Dennis Anderson

The particulars of this story are about as awful as they get. On April 13, a 15-year-old boy got into an altercation with a 13-year-old boy after a local Pony League baseball game. Witnesses and authorities say the 13-year-old retrieved an aluminum baseball bat, swung and hit the older boy, at least twice ? once on the head ? causing his death. The younger boy now faces a murder charge.

It can be a bit overwhelming for hometown journalists tasked to deliver such a story to everyone else in our communities. This, after all, isn’t a school board meeting. It’s a shocking story with national attention and competitive heat.

This would be terrible news anywhere, but the suburban city of Palmdale, Calif., styles itself, with a 130,000 population, as a “city with a small-town atmosphere.” People run into friends all the time, at the coffee shop, at the mall, and at the ballpark.

How does the local newspaper, which I edit, react? Do big media ? which will quickly move on ? and community journalism have different responsibilities?

Harm to children is one of the worst kinds of stories to work on, but it must be tackled with all the resources a community newspaper has at hand. Readers are going to expect the most details from the local paper.

So, for a few days, anyway, the school reporter’s efforts will be re-directed. A general assignment reporter immediately becomes a specialist on this too-terrible story, and the cops and courts reporters will clear their desks. But what are they expected to write?

On the morning we published the breaking story, one reader angrily asked why we did not use the phrase “beaten to death,” and please, put an exclamation point on that. Our headline was “Ball Bat Killing Stuns Valley.” The angry reader wanted to make sure the verbiage was inflammatory.

That, we will say, is not our job. We want to inform. We don’t want to inflame.

It also is not our job to be oversensitive about ugly but verifiable matters of fact and record. Another media outlet has reported that “race did not appear to be a factor” in the attack, although the victim and the alleged perpetrator are apparently of different races. If race was not a factor, why mention it at all? Probably because people will demand to know, and then begin their own discreet arguments. We haven’t mentioned it yet. We will do so when we think we understand the evolving story well enough to make our own decision.

Do we name the 13-year-old who was taken into custody? We are wrestling with that decision. Arguments in favor are: The youth’s name was read aloud at a candlelight vigil, and that name is also common knowledge within the Pony League. Once the name is out in the community, can the community newspaper stuff the toothpaste back in the tube? Tough call.

Here is another set of circumstances. Our hometown is a Los Angeles County suburb. The neighbor papers are big. Really big. The TV news stations have more than a million viewers. The “Hollywood” sign is on the other side of the mountains.

Community newspapers employ hometown veteran newsies mixed with young, talented, and often, not-yet-experienced reporters. When the big top media circus gets to town, those young and willing news hounds are under pressure to equal or beat their more seasoned competitors. In other words, the “youngsters” are pitched into the pack. Do they remain sensitive and compassionate toward their sources who live in this town, or do they become ruthless in search of the next “get”?

This has been a rough couple of years. Returning from Iraq as an embedded journalist, I arrived as a community newspaper editor to attend memorial services for a young man from our hometown, killed in Iraq. Deaths of young people are especially tragic to us because they are seldom natural. Car wrecks are bad. Death in combat, terrible. But at a ballpark? Parents are shaken in the realization that it seems there is no haven of safety for our children.

I worked for nearly 20 years at wire services. During disasters, it was always a matter of finding people who had a story to tell, quoting them accurately, and moving on. Like most wire writers, I wanted to be compassionate, and also realized I would probably never see the people in the flooded or scorched area again. But at our community newspaper, we will be in town long after the camera crews and big city reporters are gone, and we will be held accountable by our readership for what kind of job we turn in. This is very much as it should be.

Dennis Anderson is editor of the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif. He has twice worked as an embedded reporter in Iraq and has written about that experience often for E&P Online.

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