No perfect way to handle this sad story

Executive EditorApril 15, 2012 

Today’s front-page package is a study in contrasts – one half a happy story about a huge community festival and one half a tragic story about the death of Daffodil Festival Princess Alexandria Cole and how it colored Saturday’s festivities.

Our goal was to do justice to both halves of the story.

The story of Cole’s death was not one that fit neatly into our normal coverage playbook from the time it broke Wednesday morning.

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, we were to shoot our annual just-for-fun picture of the Daffodil princesses standing out in a daffodil field, oftentimes up to the tops of their high heels in mud.

About 10 a.m., the festival director called to tell us the shoot and the rest of the court’s appearances for the week were canceled. He wouldn’t tell us why.

Our reporting quickly turned up the news that one of the princesses had died. An anonymous tipster gave us her name.

The death of a princess during festival week normally would prompt a headline across the front page. We began to gather photos of Cole from the coronation ceremony and headed to her house and school to talk to those who knew her.

Within hours, we learned the princess had killed herself, which cast a new set of coverage challenges.

In most cases, we don’t write about suicides. The taking of one’s own life is a private matter, and experts tell us that writing about suicides can prompt copycats.

When a suicide happens in public or involves a public person, however, we almost have to write about it.

Here’s how editor Matt Misterek responded to a reader Wednesday who asked why we named Cole on our website: “Because of the festival, Princess Alexandria had taken on a public role, if only temporarily. There will be an empty chair (except for a photo) on the parade float this weekend. The daffodil festival is addressing Alexandria’s absence head on. We have to do the same. Once we report her death, it’s incumbent on us to answer the basic question of how she died. Thanks for raising the policy question.”

On Thursday’s front page, we needed to tell readers that Cole had died and tell them about the person she was. In the fourth paragraph, we said her death was an apparent suicide. That word did not appear in the headline.

Alongside a small portrait of Cole, we ran a large close-up photograph of a rose left on a mailbox in front of her house. It was a far better choice than a longer shot showing her home wrapped in crime scene tape. After some debate, we also ran a two-week-old photo of Cole playing with children at a Daffodil event. While it was difficult to look at, the photo showed her more candidly at a happier time.

We considered running another story on the cover offering suicide warning signs and a help line. A staffer suggested that was too much about suicide on the cover, so we moved the story inside.

We didn’t get any reader complaints, and in fact received an email that said, in part: “The manner in which you covered the facts, focused on Alexandria’s positive attributes, educated readers about warning signs and available resources made me so proud to be a part of this community. You created a warm and loving container through Debbie’s, Sara’s and Stacey’s reporting in which the community can now walk through the grief stages and be educated in the process.”

The coverage question came up again as we planned for Saturday’s parade. Obviously, Cole’s death would loom large, but we also knew that hundreds of children and others had long planned for this joyous rite of spring. There would still be clowns and balloons and floats, and we wanted to cover that, too.

So we opted for two stories.

There’s no perfect way to cover an awful event like this, but we’re fortunate to have the kind of newsroom where staff members speak their minds and respectfully question coverage decisions – even in the midst of breaking news. In the end, that’s got to make for better coverage.

STILL WAITING FOR ARMY RECORDS

It’s been four weeks since we asked the Army how many members of the Third Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed at Joint Base Lewis- McChord and deployed to Afghanistan) have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and how many of those soldiers were sent back into battle.

We’re told the information was gathered, but the release needed approval by the Lewis-McChord commander. On Wednesday, base public affairs officer Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield wrote us: “The information is with the command group. They are reviewing at this point with no time line on when it will be complete.”

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

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