One of the more difficult aspects of a journalist’s life is writing about death. Contrary to the caricatures of reporters and editors chomping cigars and swilling whiskey down chest cavities devoid of hearts, covering tragedy is a difficult task for any person deserving of the privilege of reporting the news.
Recently, our Urbandale Patch reported about a 13-month-old girl who stopped breathing at a day-care center and died.
That’s a story we were obligated to report.
That’s a story we were also obligated to report with particularly keen sensitivity.
And, for that reason, we never shared with readers the recording of the 911 call that was made as a woman struggled to revive the child as she talked on the phone with an emergency dispatcher.
There was a good short-term business consideration that argued in favor of doing so: In short, such tapes tend to bring additional eyes to our sites, and posting the audio of this 911 call surely would have accomplished just that.
And there was this consideration: We have posted 911 emergency calls before.
And then there was this to think about: Who are we to decide to withhold something about the story that we are legally entitled to post -- and that people are legally entitled to hear?
All that said, not to post the tape was a fairly easy call.
The reasons are fairly simple: Iowa’s nine Patches aren’t in the business of getting eyes on our sites through sensationalism; when we have posted 911 calls in the past it was because they added something valuable to the story; and just because we’re legally entitled to do something doesn’t mean we should do it.
In this case, the tape was certainly compelling. The voice of the woman trying to revive the baby is at once filled with heartbreak over the baby’s plight and determination to make things better. The dispatcher is calm throughout.
But Anne Carothers-Kay, who reported the story, was in agreement with her editor, Deb Belt, and me, Iowa’s regional editor, that the tape added nothing useful to the story, and that the only real “value” in posting the recording would be to dangle something sensational to entice more readers to click on the story.
The downsides were just as obvious: The woman on the tape and the baby’s family, we knew, were obviously and understandably devastated by the tragedy, and posting the recording could only add to their misery.
Adding to misery is not why Anne, Deb and I got into journalism, and that’s not why Patch exists. We got into journalism, corny as it sounds, to do good. And Patch exists to inform people, to give neighbors an opportunity to discuss important topics and some that are just fun, and to bring communities together.
It does not exist to sensationalize, to give neighbors a sneaky look inside the broken hearts of other neighbors or to tear people apart.
We realize that, except for this column, you would have likely never known of the decision we made. But since we try to explain our reasoning for some stories that do appear on Patch, it’s worth letting you know that we also make decisions about stories you may never see here.
In the end, we decided, running the “story” of the 911 tape was not worth the harm. Telling you why we made the decision, though, is part of maintaining your trust, part of respecting our communities, and part of our jobs.
Rest assured: We don’t take decisions to post stories lightly, and we certainly don’t take lightly decisions to hold back. When we have news that we think is a positive contribution to our communities -- which sometimes includes negative or simply sad news -- we’ll provide it as our responsibility as journalists.
But when we have something that serves only to further afflict the afflicted, as in this case, we’re going to be guided by our sense of what’s right as people.
Todd Richissin is Patch's regional editor for Iowa.