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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

Including the Negative About the Dead   

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

When Alaska Airlines flight 261 crashed en route to Washington in January, among Seattle's dead were a fun-loving gay couple, a millionaire businessman, fiancÚs returning from missionary work in Mexico--and Stanford Poll, who in the '70s "was subpoenaed as a material witness in a criminal investigation into payoffs to Seattle police officers," reported the Seattle Times.

Whoops! said Times Executive Editor Michael Fancher in an apology that ran in his weekly column. The newsroom was deluged with angry phone calls and letters about Poll's seven-paragraph profile. One reader attacked the paper for dredging up "25-plus-year-old charges against a man who has met with ill fate. I find it irresponsible, thoughtless and downright cruel."

While accurate, the information about Poll was "inappropriate in the context of a story intended to describe the loss to his family, friends and the community," Fancher wrote in his February 6 column, five days after the Times packaged Poll's story alongside profiles of 16 other Seattle area residents who died in the crash.

Dilemma resolved? Hardly. The question of where to draw the line between reporting the truth and minimizing harm to those shoved into the media spotlight has long plagued editors. When noteworthy people die, should editors ignore their less-noble pursuits out of deference to the grieving family? In the case of Stanford Poll, the Times said yes, publishing another story about him a few days after the original, which had no mention of his controversial past. "We hope the [second] story we published about Mr. Poll...helped lessen the hurt," Fancher wrote.

Anyone who tried to find the original story on a public database or the paper's electronic archives was out of luck. It was gone. Reporter Steve Miletich, who wrote the original piece about Poll, was surprised by his paper's and the public's reaction. The story had seemed fairly routine, he says, during a time of intense pressure in the newsroom. Not only had dozens of Seattle residents died, but the Times had lost its wine columnist in the crash off the Southern California coast.

As the newsroom scrambled to cover the story, another reporter handed Miletich a stack of clips about Poll, a tavern and pawn shop operator. Miletich discovered Poll had been involved in a '70s police corruption scandal that was "a major event in Seattle's history and lore," he recalls. Miletich digested the clips, added material about Poll's tangentially related tax troubles and tracked down a family friend whom he quoted describing Poll as "a wonderful person...the best friend anyone could ask for." He sent the story to his editor, who boiled it down a little and put it in the paper.

That evening, as editors planned the next day's coverage, they looked at Poll's profile and found it lacking, says Assistant Managing Editor for Metro Suki Dardarian. "That's not who went down in that plane. There was a lot more to his life" than a rap sheet, she says. In hindsight, "we wouldn't have necessarily ignored" his encounters with law enforcement, she says. "We would have put it in a different context," providing a fuller, more sensitive picture of the man and his life.

In a similar incident, Minneapolis readers took offense to a February 28 obituary in the Star Tribune of C. Bruce Solomonson, son-in-law of Hubert Humphrey, which highlighted his bank and mail fraud conviction. Editor Tim McGuire assigned a second story, which ran the next day and included information on Solomonson's community contributions.

The New York Times' style guide addresses the issue of including negative information in an obit, saying: "If a crime or indiscretion was the subject's main claim to fame, it should of course figure in the lead. But an early indiscretion should be kept in proportion--subordinated or omitted, depending on its ultimate significance in a life."

Seattle Times editors had numerous ethical discussions on other crash-related issues, which resulted in more sensitive coverage, Dardarian says, such as revised headlines to reflect compassion and an eight-page special tribute to the victims.

Were editor Fancher to do it over again, the Times would include the information about Poll only in a "full obituary on his life," he says. "If we were running a series of brief profiles of victims, then I wouldn't include it. In that context it would be too peripheral to who he was and how he will be remembered."

Another controversial call occurred in Boston in February, when the Herald published a photo of a heart attack victim in his underwear, his naked belly exposed, as firefighters rushed him out of a burning building. The man died soon after, and the photo prompted a raft of outraged reader responses. Herald Publisher Pat Purcell defended the photo, saying it "represented both the heroism and tragedy of the situation."

Well, not exactly, says Bob Steele, senior faculty member and ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. "If I were a family member, I would feel as if I had been emotionally swatted by a two-by-four at the worst moment of my life," he says. "If the Herald's goal was to emphasize heroism, they should have used a different photo that focused more on firefighters and less on the body of the victim."

As for the Seattle Times coverage, Steele says: "The writers and editors should have thought through the ramifications of using the pejorative information about the victim. If the paper decided the negative historical angle was important to the story, they should have found a factual yet less harmful way to include that detail."