Powell story was test for newspaper

Executive EditorFebruary 12, 2012 

Our coverage in today’s paper of the memorial for Charlie and Braden Powell marks the end of an emotional week for our community and one that tested the newsroom as we tried to be thorough but sensitive on a story that drew national coverage.

We debated many times how to cover the agonizing details that seeped out day after day.

On some stories we pressed harder than other news organizations; on others we were not as aggressive. Many times, we worked with others to share information and minimize the impact on the family.

The mass of media by itself was intrusive. Parents of Carson Elementary School, which Charlie attended, complained Monday about the string of TV trucks lining the road out front. We were there, as well, to take photos of the growing memorial, but the tools of our trade – handheld cameras and notebooks – are by their nature more subtle. We also left quickly.

When national news outlets swoop in, sometimes they’re respectful, sometimes they’re not. We saw some of both last week. It’s easier to be brash when you don’t live in the same community with the people you’re covering.

Shortly after the killings, we requested an interview with the social worker who took the Powell boys to their father’s house last Sunday. She declined our request, saying she was too upset, and asked that we not use her name. We honored her wishes, trying to give some space to this woman who obviously was suffering. She didn’t speak with Seattle broadcasters, either, although some named her right away.

Suddenly midweek, ABC’s “20/20” announced its exclusive interview with Elizabeth Griffin-Hall that aired in full Friday night. The way it came about left some wondering how the network got the interview.

Once she chose to go public with ABC, we named Griffin-Hall in stories and ran her picture.

The coverage decision that drew the most discussion – among readers and newsroom staffers – was our front-page story Thursday saying members of Westboro Baptist Church were planning to protest at Saturday’s funeral.

Hundreds commented on the Web version of our story. Most railed against Westboro; some railed against us. A letter to the editor Friday said: “It is amazing to me the amount of free publicity that is given to this extremely small hate group.”

Yes, we played into the hands of this loathsome group simply by running the story. But the possibility the Kansas protesters would use the children’s funeral to make their political point struck us as newsworthy, especially with a counter-demonstration beginning to build.

Westboro protesters have been here before. They held up signs outside a soldier’s funeral in Port Orchard in 2007. Their victory last year at the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld their First Amendment right to wave their anti-gay signs, overturned a Washington state law designed to limit them.

We could have ignored the information – some other news organizations did – but we decided people here would want to know. Thankfully, the Westboro group didn’t come.

As for Saturday’s memorial service, news outlets, both local and national, worked together behind the scenes to minimize their intrusion. One of our photographers and one from The Associated Press served as the “pool” photographers. The church assigned us places to stand inside, and we agreed to share our photos with other media outlets. That way, the church wasn’t filled with flashing cameras. TV videographers did the same.

As members of “the media,” we were among those blamed for triggering Josh Powell’s murderous acts.

Fact 1: Josh Powell is to blame for the deaths of his boys. Fact 2: Josh Powell was a newsworthy figure.

When a man’s wife disappears and he refuses for two years to cooperate with the investigation, news organizations should cover what the police and others are doing about it.

In fact, Chuck and Judy Cox invited media coverage from the beginning so the disappearance of their daughter, Susan, wouldn’t fall off the news pages. On Monday, with impressive composure, they invited reporters and photographers into their home to see the bedroom they had built for their grandsons and to talk about Charlie and Braden.

At a time like this, in addition to covering the unfolding crime story, we give grieving families the chance to talk about their loved ones, turning some of the attention appropriately from the perpetrator to the victims.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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